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The importance of a health care proxy and agent

A health care proxy is one of the most crucial documents you can have in your estate plan. It's one document that just about any adult, regardless of their age, is wise to have.

It details your wishes for your medical care – particularly things like under what circumstances you want life-sustaining measures to be continued or discontinued. A health care proxy (known in some states as an advance health care directive or medical directive) can allow you to "communicate" to the medical professionals caring for you if you're unable to speak for yourself.

Part of developing your health care proxy document is appointing your health care agent. This is the person whom you're giving the authority to talk with your health care providers and make decisions about your care if you're unable to.

Your health care agent is limited by the authority you give them in your health care proxy. You may choose to give them a full say in such things as if or when you can be taken off of respiratory equipment or a feeding tube that is keeping you alive and what kinds of treatments you are willing to undergo. However, you may choose to be as detailed as possible with your wishes so that your agent's job is primarily to ensure that your doctors are following those wishes.

Having a health care agent can help prevent conflict among multiple family members who think they know what you'd want. Choosing an agent is something that requires considerable thought. Most people appoint a family member, like a spouse, sibling or adult child, or perhaps a close friend. However, it's essential to make sure that whomever you choose is able and willing to take on that responsibility.

Regardless of how much decision-making authority you give your agent, it's wise to discuss your wishes with them and make sure they feel comfortable with them. If they aren't, find someone else for the job. It's also a good idea to name an alternate agent who can assume the responsibility if your chosen agent isn't able to do so.

It's best to draw up your health care proxy with the help of an experienced estate planning attorney. They can provide guidance specific to your unique wishes and family circumstances.

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