Medical Power of Attorney: Don't Put it Off
This is a question that adults of all ages should ask themselves – and formalize with a medical power of attorney (POA). It’s especially important for Washingtonians to establish a medical POA, because Washington’s guardianship laws differ from other states.
When a person becomes incapacitated and unable to speak for themselves, Washington hospitals may not have the authority to transfer them to another facility (a long-term care facility, for example) without the authorization of the person’s POA. If they don’t have one established, the family may need to go through a lengthy legal process to gain decision-making power. In addition to the stress and cost for families, these delays have contributed to the backlog of patients in hospitals whose resources are already stretched thin.
To avoid this kind of stress for your loved ones and ensure the best care for yourself, it’s important to establish your medical POA now.
Len Hagen, JD, LLM, is an attorney at Sound Estate Planning in Edmonds and one of the trusted professionals that we at CWM collaborate with on a regular basis. He helps clients establish their legal health care documents (medical POA, Advance Directive, and HIPAA authorization) in order to clearly outline their wishes and to empower their chosen decision-makers in the event they lose the capacity to make decisions for themselves.
“One of the most loving things you can do for your family is to remove as much guesswork as possible from an already-stressful situation by having your legal documents in place,” Len says. “I recommend clients have two powers of attorney: A medical POA designating their agent for health care decisions, and a general POA designating their agent for financial matters. Most spouses choose each other as their initial agents, but it’s a good idea to have a second, and even a third agent. Think of it like a baseball game: You want a deep bench behind you.”
You can work with an estate planner like Len to establish these documents, or you can draft them yourself. There are many sources online for free, downloadable documents that you can print, complete and sign – though you may still wish to have an attorney review them as laws can vary by state and change over time. An experienced attorney can also talk through decisions and scenarios they’ve encountered that may help clarify the choices you make when drafting your POA. A medical POA does not need to be registered with the state, but it does need to be signed in front of either a notary or two witnesses.
The medical power of attorney only takes effect if you become incapacitated and unable to make your own health care decisions. And if you remain incapacitated and need to be moved to a long-term care facility, the medical POA should grant transfer power to your agent to help ensure the move can happen as soon as it’s necessary, so you get the most appropriate care.
Don’t have a POA? Start here
What does it look like to create and maintain a POA? Here are five key steps:
- Choose your Agent. This is the person you’ll entrust with your health care decisions. Your agent might be an obvious choice, like your spouse or partner, or you may want to think about it for a while. You can choose a close friend, a sibling, an adult child, or an impartial party like your lawyer. Some legal professionals will fill the role of Agent or Trustee for a fee. Above all, choose someone who will honor your wishes and keep your best interests in mind.
- Complete the document. You can do much more with a medical POA than designate an agent. This is your opportunity to make your wishes known about the kind of care you want – and don’t want – in the event you become incapacitated. Do you want extraordinary measures taken to keep you alive? These are difficult decisions to think about but making them now will prevent potential confusion and conflict later.
- Get it notarized. Both you and your agent must sign the medical power of attorney in the presence of a notary. If you can’t access a notary, you’ll need the signatures of two competent, disinterested witnesses. In this case, disinterested means that the witnesses can’t be relatives by blood or marriage and cannot be health care workers at a long-term care facility.
- Keep it current. It’s best to refresh your POA every three to five years. Keeping it current will ensure it holds up to legal scrutiny. Plus, as life changes, your wishes may change too.
- Keep it safe. Give the original POA document to your agent and keep a copy for yourself with the rest of your important papers. If you have a lawyer or estate planner, ensure they have a copy to keep on file. And share it with your primary doctor as well, if you have one.
“Discussing your health care wishes with loved ones can be difficult,” Len notes, “but the financial and emotional costs of putting off these steps can be very high.” In addition to putting your own medical POA in place, start the conversation with your loved ones as well. Having these legal protections could save you and your loved ones from getting caught up in a backlog of legal delays at the time when you need the most care.
Take the first step
Proper estate planning is essential to your financial health and well-being, and at CWM we are proud to partner with our client’s estate planners, CPAs, and other important partners for a more cohesive approach to financial planning and investment management.
If you're interested in learning more or getting serious about estate planning, you can reach Len and his team at (425) 967-7287 or SoundEstatePlanning.com. And if you have questions about financial planning overall contact us or call the office at (425) 778-6160, at CWM we're always happy to help.
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