The Responsibilities of Medical Durable Power of Attorney for the Elderly

By Larissa Bodniowycz, J.D.

The Responsibilities of Medical Durable Power of Attorney for the Elderly

By Larissa Bodniowycz, J.D.

A durable medical power of attorney (POA) allows a person to appoint someone to make health care decisions on their behalf if they are unable to make the decisions for themselves. The responsibilities in this situation for an elderly person are the same as the responsibilities under a medical durable POA for a person of any age.

Middle aged woman watching old woman signing document across table from another person

This legal document appoints an agent to make decisions on behalf of the creator of the document, called the principal, if they cannot make those decisions themselves. Although it is advisable for people of all ages to have a legal documents for this kind of situation, many do not create them until they are elderly.

Differences from Living Will

As people begin to make estate planning decisions, they sometimes confuse a medical POA with a living will. They are not the same. The latter, also called an advanced health care directive, is a different type of health care planning tool.

A health care directive provides specific instructions for a person's medical care after they are no longer able to make the decision themselves. A durable medical POA allows another person to make those decisions for them.

Responsibilities Associated with a Durable Medical Power of Attorney

This legal designation grants the agent a great deal of authority. The primary legal responsibility of this individual is to follow the instructions set out in the document.

The medical POA may contain specific instructions regarding what type of care they want in certain medical situations, similar to a living will, or it might limit the agent's powers. The agent must follow these instructions.

Making Decisions that Are Consistent with the Principal's Wishes

Many medical POAs do not contain specific instructions or restrictions and instead broadly grant the agent the power to make decisions on behalf of the principal. In this situation, the agent must make the decisions that they believe this person would have made.

An agent should be careful not to substitute their wishes for those of the person for whom they're caring. For example, someone might prefer tube feeding for themselves, but the principal might not want tube feeding under the same circumstances. The individual must make the decision to reject tube feeding because it is what the principal wanted, regardless of whether the person acting on their behalf personally disagrees.

Discussing the Situation with the Principal Before Their Incapacity

An agent under a durable POA does not have any power until the principal is incapacitated. Once that happens, however, the designated individual must make health care decisions for the principal. These are often difficult decisions, such as whether a surgery should occur or which life support measures to take. This can be very overwhelming, particularly if the powers granted to someone are broad.

One way to make it less overwhelming is to have a detailed conversation with the principal about their wishes well ahead of their incapacity. Although law does not require such a conversation, an agent should consider consulting the principal part of their ethical responsibilities.

A health care POA and a living will are two important parts of estate planning that help carry out their creator's medical wishes even when they cannot express their wishes themselves. Familiarize yourself with the requirements now so that you can create a document that is valid in your state.

This portion of the site is for informational purposes only. The content is not legal advice. The statements and opinions are the expression of author, not LegalZoom, and have not been evaluated by LegalZoom for accuracy, completeness, or changes in the law.