New Yorkers should name a health care proxy for help with medical care

It's a disturbing thought for most people: what will happen to me in the event of a catastrophic illness or injury that renders me unable to decide medical care on my own behalf? Because it is such a disquieting thought, many people put off planning for such events. Yet the only thing worse than having an accident that renders a person unable to make medical decisions is subsequently getting care that he or she never wanted.

Fortunately, New Yorkers can name a health care proxy who can make medical decisions on behalf of a patient who is no longer able to do so. Naming a health care proxy in no way diminishes a patient's rights. Patients are always able to make healthcare decisions on their own so long as they are mentally and physically able to do so.

The health care proxy should be a trusted friend or relative who is aware of the patient's wishes regarding treatment. This person should also be willing to be a proxy and fully understand the responsibility. Some people may prefer not to be named; a spouse may feel he or she will be too emotional in some circumstances to make reasoned healthcare decisions, for example.

If there is no named health care proxy, then the state names one of the following people to act as a surrogate, in this order of priority:

  • The legal guardian, if applicable
  • The spouse, so long as he or she is not legally separated from the patient
  • An adult son or daughter
  • The parents of the patient
  • An adult brother or sister
  • A close adult friend

Many people may be happy with the default option of a spouse deciding medical care. The problem with not naming a health care proxy, however, is the uncertainty this brings. Not specifically naming a health care proxy and discussing medical options can put strain on a family.

Many people think a health care proxy is only useful for end-of-life decisions, such as withholding life support if a patient is comatose. However, a health care proxy can be valuable in other cases as well, such as by putting a patient in a health care facility he or she previously mentioned wanting to receive care.

If a patient so desires, they can outline some of their wishes in a document called a living will. However, some attorneys caution that because no one can fully anticipate future medical needs, writing them down can only muddle the issue. Of course, it is always each person's final decision, so working with an experienced estate planning attorney is key to understanding the issues and choosing the best course.

People without a comprehensive estate plan should contact an attorney to fully explore their options.