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What is a Health Care Proxy (And Why Does it Matter)?

November 11, 2016

If you’ve ever had an outpatient or inpatient medical procedure, chances are you’ve been asked if you have a health care proxy. If you’re in generally good health and are pretty young, you probably don’t have a health care proxy and haven’t really thought about one. Taking a few minutes to understand health care proxies, though, can provide some major peace of mind for you and your family down the road.

Health Care Proxies 101

As a base definition, a health care proxy allows you to appoint someone you trust to make health care decisions for you. That’s why nurses and doctors will ask you about the document before any type of surgical procedure.

An important note >> The person you choose to appoint may only make said health care decisions if you lose the ability to make decisions yourself. Here’s an example: If something were to occur while you were under the temporary effects of general anesthesia during a routine surgical procedure, your health care proxy would be able to make medical decisions for you.

In this temporary situation, once you have emerged from the effects of the general anesthesia and can resume making your own health care decisions, your health care proxy no longer has the authority to make decisions on your behalf.

A longer-term example would come into play if you are in a permanent comatose state due to a terminal illness. In this case a health care proxy may also make medical decisions for you over the long term.

Choosing the Right Health Care Proxy

Please be advised that your health care proxy will be responsible for determining all medical decisions that are made in regard to your condition.  Medical institutions, hospitals, doctors and health care providers must follow the instructions of your health care proxy as if you were personally stating these instructions.  With this in mind, it is extremely important to have detailed discussions with your health care proxy covering all types of medical treatment (i.e. basic care to end of life care).  These discussions will ensure that your health care proxy always chooses the treatment that you would have chosen for yourself given the scenario.  

Due to these circumstances, it is critical to choose a health care proxy whom you trust as well as a person with whom you are comfortable discussing all possible medical emergency scenarios. It’s not easy to have these types of conversations, but they are critical to your (and your health care proxy’s) peace of mind.

When to Choose Your Health Care Proxy

Given the uncertainties of life, it is important that everyone over the age of 18 execute a Health Care Proxy whenever they are able to do so.  There is a common public misconception that documents such as a Power of Attorney and Health Care Proxy should only be executed by the elderly; this perception is simply invalid.

Although younger generations may have a sense of invulnerability, the fact remains that accidents do happen and people of all ages may one day find themselves in a medical situation where they cannot make medical decisions on their own (i.e. under anesthesia, comatose states, etc.).  Due to these circumstances, men and women of all ages should execute a health care proxy so that there is no debate over (a) who will be responsible for your medical decision making if you are unable to do so; and (b) what your ultimate wishes are regarding basic medical treatment as well as life-prolonging treatment such as artificial nutrition, etc.  

How often have we seen stories in the news where a young person has been involved in a tragic accident and one relative wishes to terminate life-sustaining treatment while another relative wishes to continue?  Pubic stories like the tragic death of young Bobbi Kristina Brown (the child of Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown) call sobering attention to the tragedy that can occur when families haven’t had critical conversations.

These situations can result in extremely lengthy court battles that could have been avoided with the execution of a Health Care Proxy.  Furthermore, if one does not have a Health Care Proxy in place, the Court may order that a guardian be established in order to make health care decisions for the patient.  Guardianship proceedings can be extremely expensive and guardianships themselves can be contested which results in lengthy court proceedings that take place while your loved one remains in limbo.  

The #1 Mistake When Making a Health Care Proxy

The biggest mistake you can make when it comes to health care proxies is simple: not having one.  Health care proxies are extremely easy to prepare and are usually performed at no cost by most estate planning attorneys, as well as medical institutions.  If you are interested in preparing this document, please contact your attorney and/or your primary medical professional in order to receive documentation regarding same.

Although not imperative, health care proxy documents should be reviewed annually in order to ensure that all addresses and phone numbers are current and correct and that the living will portion of said health care proxy properly includes your instructions regarding end of life medical treatment (i.e. administration of painkillers such as morphine, removal of artificial nutrition, etc.).


Finally, please keep in mind that a health care proxy only dictates who may set forth your medical treatment should you be unable to do so.  All financial transactions are managed by your agent who is designated under a New York State Durable Power of Attorney – which is perhaps even more important than a health care proxy due to circumstances that can arise regarding long term care and the availability of governmental benefits such as Medicaid.


Your estate planning attorney can help answer questions and provide important insight into health care proxies and other decisions that affect and protect your family. At Restaino Reddien, LLP, we are happy to help residents across Western New York. Call us to set up an appointment in our offices, or have us come to you. We’re here to help.

Related Topics: Estate Planning, Retirement Planning

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