You never know when an accident or illness could leave you unable to make your own medical decisions. That's why it's so important to appoint a health care proxy—someone you trust to make those choices for you if you become incapacitated. A health care proxy is part of an advance directive, legal documents that spell out your wishes. Choosing the right proxy and having frank discussions about your values, priorities, and end-of-life preferences can give you peace of mind. In this article, we'll walk through everything you need to know about health care proxies, from who to choose to how to have the difficult but necessary talks about what medical treatments you do and don't want. Planning now helps ensure your wishes are honored later.

What Is a Health Care Proxy?

A health care proxy is a legal document that allows you to appoint someone you trust—usually a family member or close friend—to make health care decisions for you if you become unable to make them yourself.

Unfortunately, accidents and illnesses can happen unexpectedly. A health care proxy ensures that someone you choose and trust will advocate for you and make medical decisions on your behalf according to your wishes. Without a proxy, doctors and hospitals will turn to family members, who may disagree on the best course of treatment. Appointing a proxy gives you control and peace of mind.

How Does a Health Care Proxy Work?

You designate a specific person as your health care proxy or agent using an official state legal form. You can specify exactly what kinds of decisions and treatments you authorize your proxy to make. Your proxy can then make choices about things like surgery, medication, life support, and organ donation. They are obligated to follow your instructions and act in your best interest. You can also name an alternate proxy in case your first choice becomes unavailable.

Who Should You Appoint?

Choose someone you trust completely, like your spouse, adult child, or close friend. Make sure they understand your values and priorities regarding end-of-life care. Discuss your wishes in detail and provide written guidance about any treatment you do or don't want. Your proxy should be willing to advocate on your behalf, follow your directions, and make difficult decisions during an emotional time. They should also be able to handle conflicting opinions from doctors and family members with confidence and compassion.

Appointing a health care proxy is an important step toward planning for incapacity and ensuring your wishes are honored. Discussing your options in advance and putting the right person in place can give you peace of mind about your future health care. While not an easy topic, it's one that deserves careful consideration.

Creating a Living Will and a Health Care Proxy: Specifying Your Medical Wishes

A living will specifies your wishes regarding medical treatment in the event you become incapacitated and unable to communicate. It's a crucial part of your health care planning.

Choose a Health Care Proxy

First, you'll need to choose someone you trust to act as your health care proxy or surrogate. This person will have the authority to make medical decisions on your behalf if you're unable to do so yourself. Pick someone who knows your values and wishes well and who can handle the responsibility. Be sure to ask them if they're willing to take on this important role.

Specifying Your Wishes

Next, you'll want to specify in writing the types of treatments you do and do not consent to in the event of a terminal illness or injury. Do you want all measures taken to prolong your life? Only certain treatments like antibiotics or CPR? Or do you wish to avoid aggressive interventions altogether and allow natural death? These are difficult but important decisions to make. Discuss your options with your doctor to determine what aligns with your values.

Review and Update Regularly

Once completed, review and update your living will regularly, especially if your health changes or you have a change of heart regarding certain treatments. Provide copies to your health care proxy, doctors, and local hospitals. A living will ensures your wishes are honored even when you can't speak for yourself. Though not an easy process, it can give you peace of mind knowing you have a say in your own health care.

Choosing Your Health Care Agent

The decision to appoint a health care proxy is an important one. This person will make medical decisions on your behalf if you become incapacitated, so choose someone you trust completely.

Select someone reliable and responsible

Your health care agent should be a close friend or family member who knows your wishes well and will follow them faithfully. Think of someone level-headed in stressful situations, willing to ask doctors questions to understand treatment options fully before making decisions. Discuss your health care preferences in detail with this person to ensure they feel comfortable carrying out your wishes.

Consider possible conflicts of interest

Avoid appointing close family members like a spouse or child as your only health care agent. While they may know you best emotionally, they could be too distraught in a medical crisis to make objective decisions. Consider naming an alternate agent in case your primary agent cannot serve for any reason. Your alternate should also fully understand your preferences.

Discuss your wishes thoroughly

The most important thing is to talk with your health care agent about what types of treatment you do and do not want in different situations. Be as specific as possible. Discuss conditions like terminal illnesses, permanent unconsciousness, and end-of-life care. Explain any religious beliefs or personal values that would influence your choices. Your agent cannot follow your wishes if they do not fully understand them.

Provide written guidance

In addition to conversations, provide written guidance for your health care agent and doctors to reference. You can use an advance directive like a living will to specify your wishes or designate a health care agent using a durable power of attorney for health care. Review and update these documents regularly, especially if your preferences change.

Appointing a trusted health care agent and providing clear guidance on your wishes regarding medical treatment will give you peace of mind that someone will advocate for you if you cannot speak for yourself. Discussing this topic in depth, though difficult, can be a gift to your loved ones who may have to make decisions on your behalf one day.

Health Care Directives and HIPAA Regulations

A health care proxy, also known as a durable power of attorney for health care, allows you to appoint a trusted person (known as a health care agent) to make medical decisions for you if you become incapacitated. Creating this legal document is important so your wishes are respected if you can't communicate them yourself.

HIPAA Release Form

In addition to a health care proxy, you'll want to complete a HIPAA release form that gives your agent access to your protected health information. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) protects patient privacy, but without a release your doctors and hospitals won't be able to discuss your medical condition or treatment options with your agent. A properly executed HIPAA release, along with a health care proxy, gives your agent the full authority to act as your representative.

Review Your Documents Regularly

Once you have a health care proxy and HIPAA release in place, review them periodically to make sure there are no changes you want to make. You can update or revoke these documents at any time as long as you remain competent. It's also a good idea to provide copies to your agent(s), close family and friends, and medical team. That way there is a clear understanding of your wishes should there come a time when you are unable to communicate for yourself.

Planning for incapacity is never easy, but putting legal safeguards in place gives you peace of mind that your health care preferences will be respected. Discussing your wishes openly with loved ones also helps ensure there are no questions about the type of medical care you want—or don't want—if you become unable to decide for yourself. Taking these steps today provides protection for the future.


So there you have it. Appointing a health care proxy is one of the most important things you can do to prepare for the unexpected. It's not fun to think about, but once it's done you'll feel a sense of relief knowing you've got someone you trust to make medical decisions if you can't. The bottom line is to choose wisely, communicate clearly, and review regularly to keep your health care wishes up to date. Sure, it takes some time on the front end. But think of it as an act of love for your family and friends. Making your wishes known ahead of time gives them peace of mind if tough choices come up down the road.  Consult with a Brooklyn estate planning attorney to help you with these vital documents.