What is medical power of attorney?

A medical power of attorney (POA) is a document that grants someone the legal right to make medical and healthcare decisions on your behalf.

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Derek SilvaSenior Editor & Personal Finance ExpertDerek is a former senior editor and personal finance expert at Policygenius, where he specialized in financial data, taxes, estate planning, and investing. Previously, he was a staff writer at SmartAsset.

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A power of attorney (POA) is a legal document that gives someone the legal authority to act on your behalf when you are unable to do so yourself. The person who creates the POA is known as the principal. The person who receives power from the POA is known as the agent or attorney-in-fact. The two most common types of POA are a medical POA and a financial POA.

A medical power of attorney (also called a healthcare power of attorney or a healthcare proxy) grants your agent the right to make healthcare and other medical decisions for you. A POA only takes effect in the circumstances which you lay out in the document, and you can make your medical POA as specific or general as you want. Many medical POAs cover long-term care decisions and end-of-life decisions. They may also apply when you undergo surgery or other medical procedures. However, certain emergency situations can require your doctor to act quickly and a POA may not take effect.

It’s most common for someone’s medical POA to be a durable power of attorney, which means it will still grant your agent authority if you are incapacitated (physically unable to express your wishes). A normal POA expires in the event of incapacity. Whether durable or non-durable, all POAs expire if you die.

A medical power of attorney is useful for just about everybody to have in their estate plan, especially as you get older. Creating a medical power of attorney is usually affordable and while it may never take effect, it can simplify decision-making should you become sick or injured.

Key takeaways

  • The person you appoint to make decisions for you is called your agent or attorney-in-fact.

  • Most medical POAs are durable POAs and take effect even if you’re incapacitated.

  • Medical POAs are also called healthcare POAs or healthcare proxies.

  • You can create a medical POA online through a digital service or you can hire an attorney.

What is a durable medical power of attorney?

Most medical POAs are set up as durable POAs. A durable medical power of attorney continues to take effect even if you’re incapacitated and physically or mentally unable to make your wishes known. This could include a wide range of situations, from being under anesthetics for a single procedure to being in a coma for months. You can specify the situations when you want your medical POA to take effect. But if you exclude a situation and then that situation occurs, someone (your spouse or next of kin) will still have to make a decision, so consider including every scenario you’re comfortable with in your medical POA.

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If you die while a durable medical POA is in effect, it will expire. Your agent will not have the authority to do anything after your death, and they can never change the terms of your will. (The person in charge of handling your things after you die is the executor of your will. You could name the same person as your agent and executor, but each role is separate.)

Medical powers of attorney can also grant your agent the ability to apply for government healthcare benefits on your behalf, such as Medicaid, Medicare, or Social Security disability insurance (SSDI).

→ Related article: All about durable powers of attorney

Add a living will to your medical POA

You may want to create a living will in conjunction with your medical power of attorney document. A living will, also called an advance directive, allows you to lay out your instructions for end-of-life care. Living wills work in conjunction with a medical power of attorney because your living will tells your agent what you want them to do, and then your POA gives them the authority to carry out those instructions. (In some cases, a healthcare proxy form will include space for writing out your wishes, meaning a living will may not be necessary.) If you do have specific wishes, like if you want to avoid a particular medical treatment, it's best to discusss with your agent ahead of time.

How to get a medical power of attorney

Laws vary by state and how you draft medical power of attorney documents depends on where you live and your specific situation. There are a few main ways to create a POA: fill out a form you found online (or made yourself); use a digital service; or hire an attorney to create your POA. Depending on where you live, you may need to have your medical POA signed by two witnesses and notarized.

No matter how you make your medical POA, make sure you give copies of it to the relevant parties, like your doctor’s office and your agent. Your agent will only be granted power (according to the medical power of attorney) if people have the form on hand and have already confirmed that it’s valid. If you haven’t filed your POA with your doctor’s office or other healthcare providers ahead of time, they may not recognize it or your agent.

Use an online medical power of attorney form

In the simplest cases, you can fill out a POA form that lists the powers you want your agent to have and when those powers take effect. You can find free forms online — potentially with a checklist that allows you to just choose the specific powers you want to grant — but always make sure the form is valid in your state.

Use a digital service

There are also digital and online services that can help you create powers of attorney without having to do everything yourself. For any service you use, make sure it has been vetted by attorneys and is state-specific. Also keep in mind that some services help you create some types of POAs, but not medical POAs.

Hire an estate planning attorney

It’s best to work with an estate planning attorney (also called an estate planning lawyer) in some cases because a durable medical POA can sometimes be a bit complicated. You may also consider hiring an attorney if you want to create a more complicated document (with very specific situations or with multiple agents), if you want further legal advice, or if you want to create any documents beyond just the POA. For help with a comprehensive end-of-life plan, you may want to find an elder law attorney.

→ Learn more about how to find an estate attorney

Cost of a medical power of attorney

The cost of a medical power of attorney varies based on how you create it, where you live, and your specific situation. If you fill out a free form you found online, you may not have to pay anything (though you may need to pay to get it notarized). If you use a digital service, you could pay anywhere from less than $100 to a few hundred dollars. Many services healthcare proxy, all for one low price. Hiring an estate attorney is the most expensive option — potentially costing at least a few hundred dollars — but prices vary widely based on where you live. The price could be worth it, though, especially if you have additional legal questions.

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