Health Care Agents: What Can They Decide?

Estate Planning - March 6, 2020
Young couple talking to a healthcare agent

Health care agents

A health care agent makes health care decisions for you when you are unable to do so. There are some decisions, however, that they cannot make on your behalf — let us explain a few of the key things you should know.

There may be a time when you are unable to speak for yourself, perhaps because of an illness, injury, or other condition. For these situations, you may want to have a health care agent to make health care decisions on your behalf. These agents also referred to as health care proxies may only speak for you on occasions when you are unable to speak for yourself. This means there are some decisions your health care agent cannot make for you.

Benefits of having a health care agent

You are not required by law to designate a health care agent, but having a person serve in this role can prove helpful. Often individuals consider designating their spouse as their health care agent if they are planning to get married or are already married.

When it comes to making medical care decisions on your behalf, family members may face several challenges. Such a circumstance would present a stressful time for your loved ones. They might disagree about what is the best route for your medical care, and the decision may ultimately be made by a court-appointed guardian, hospital administrators, or doctors.

By appointing a health care agent, you liberate your loved ones from the anxiety of having to make medical choices for you. You will have the opportunity to carefully explain your precise wishes to your health care agent for the types of medical care you want in various health situations.

The role of a health care agent

Many people have the foresight to compose a Living Will, also known as an advance directive. This legal document details what medical treatment you wish to have and which treatment you do not want in the event you are unable to articulate these wishes.

One duty of your health care agent is to ensure that, in these circumstances, the medical care you receive lines up with the wishes you express in your Living Will. In the absence of an advance directive, doctors will turn to your health care agent to make these important decisions on your behalf.

Things that a health care agent is authorized to do

Although the powers of a health care agent differ from state to state, your health care agent is usually empowered to do the following:

  • Decide whether or not doctors may use life-sustaining and other medical treatments on you
  • Approve treatment and/or stop treatment if it does not succeed in improving your condition
  • Access and release your medical records
  • Ask for an autopsy
  • Donate your organs (unless strictly forbidden in your Living Will)

Authorizations you might want to check with your state

Your state might prohibit health care agents from the following:

  • Ordering an abortion or sterilization
  • Refusing or stopping any of life-sustaining care, such as tube feeding
  • Withdrawing or refusing life-enhancing care

Decisions a health care agent cannot make

Your health care agent cannot control or make decisions about your money. Nor can your agent be required to pay your bills. Other restrictions on what a health care agent is authorized to do will differ by state.

How to choose a health care agent

The health care agent is a very important role to fill, especially if you do not have a precisely written Living Will. Selecting the person who is going to speak for you about potentially life-saving medical treatment can be overwhelming.

A good way to narrow the search is to look around at your family and friends. Consider who has a true insight into you as a person and perhaps shares your same values on life. If no member of your family makes a good match, you can consider appointing your lawyer to this role.

Some people also name an alternate health care agent in case your first choice is unavailable. Always be sure to confirm with both your health care proxy and your alternative that they are able and willing to serve in this vital capacity. Better to find this out now rather than later, when your very life rests in their hands.

Deciding how much authority to give your health care agent

Do you want your health care proxy to carry a broad brush and be able to decide a wide variety of medical care issues for you? Or would you prefer to restrict their decision-making authority to very specific situations? Be careful that you do not box your agent into an impossible situation by placing specific instructions for which you have not considered all the variables. It is a good idea to talk to your doctor about the various types of decisions that might come up in a health care crisis.

Making your health care agent choice legal

You will want to give your Living Will advance directive and health care agent appointment an official status. You can use legal forms to create a legal document that conveys your end-of-life wishes. Although you can use a lawyer for this process, it is not required.

In some states, you will need to have someone witness your signing of this document. Some states even require that the signature be notarized. You can easily find a notary public for this purpose. Check your bank, the library, post office, or insurance agent. If you go through a lawyer, they should provide the notary.

LegalShield coverage for life’s important matters

Your health care agent plays a vital role in your estate planning and end-of-life decisions. It is essential that you choose this person carefully and to make sure the document that gives them this responsibility is comprehensive and legally sound.

Not convinced? LegalShield puts an entire law firm in your corner who works with you to set up a health care agent as well as offer consultation on other end-of-life matters.

LegalShield provides access to legal services offered by a network of provider law firms to LegalShield Members through member-based participation. Neither LegalShield nor its officers, employees or sales associates directly or indirectly provide legal services, representation or advice. See a plan contract at for specific state of residence for complete terms, coverage, amounts, and conditions. This is not intended to be legal or medical advice. Please contact a medical professional for medical advice or assistance and an attorney for legal advice or assistance.