A healthcare proxy is a legal document in which one appoints a “healthcare agent” to make medical decisions should that person be unable to do so because of either injury or illness. Usually, a healthcare proxy gives an appointed family member or someone outside the family additional authority to make decisions about the person’s health care.

The healthcare agent normally must be at least 18 years old. Most states also prohibit physicians, nurses, and other medical professionals from being healthcare agents, unless the medical professional is a relative of the person executing the proxy.

How Does a Healthcare Proxy Differ from a Living Will?

In a living will, a person specifies their wishes regarding the extent of life-sustaining treatment, and the medical providers follow the patient’s own instructions and wishes as laid out in the living will document. Unlike a living will, a healthcare proxy specifies a healthcare agent, who has the authority to deal with any medical decision, and the medical providers will follow the healthcare agent’s instructions instead of trying to ascertain what the patient may or may not want to have happen.

How Does a Healthcare Proxy Work?

A patient has the right to make their own medical decisions. However, in the event that the attending physician determines that the patient lacks the capacity to make decisions and a healthcare proxy exists, the proxy goes into effect and the healthcare agent is placed in charge of making the healthcare decisions for the patient.

What Should You Do If You Do Not Have a Healthcare Proxy?

Tragedy can strike at any time. Having a living will by itself may not cover all circumstance that might occur, whereas having a healthcare proxy can help prevent conflict and possible legal battles.

To effectively execute a healthcare proxy and designate a healthcare agent, you should elect someone who legally can and is willing to act as an advocate for you and express your wishes to them. A will lawyer in your area can advise you of the laws of your state and draft a proxy form in compliance with your wishes.