Understanding the powers of a health care agent

When making plans for the future, one key consideration is an advance directive. This document – which is generally made up of four parts – allows you to express your health and medical care preferences ahead of time.

One aspect of this is the selection of a health care agent, an individual you appoint to make health care decisions on your behalf if you are unable to do so yourself. Here are five things you should know about the powers of a health care agent.

You must be incapable of making medical decisions

A health care agent’s powers are not active all the time. They only trigger when you are incapable of making care choices yourself. This could be because you are temporarily unconscious, suffering from a mental illness, in a coma, or going through some other ailment.

However, you may also give up health care decision-making responsibility voluntarily, passing those powers (for as long as you wish) to your health care agent.

The health care agent can say no

Being a health care agent is a big responsibility. Know that someone you select to be your health care agent can refuse to take on that responsibility. It is important to talk to the person ahead of time to make sure they are comfortable with the role.

The agent must act according to your wishes

A health care agent can not make decisions without regard for your own wishes. They must take into account:

  • The treatment preferences laid out in your advance directive
  • Their past conversations with you
  • Your religious beliefs
  • Your values
  • Your previous health care choices

With all of that information in mind, your health care agent is tasked with making the choice they believe is in your best interest.

An agent’s powers are limited

While a health care agent is granted wide latitude when it comes to your care, they are prohibited from making certain decisions. That includes with regards to sterilization, psychosurgery, and involuntary commitment for certain mental illnesses.

The court can revoke an agent’s powers

If the court finds a health care agent is not acting according to your wishes or is no longer competent themselves, they may choose to revoke the agent’s powers. When you create an advance directive, you can choose a back-up health care agent should the first be unable (or unwilling) to take on that role.