Do You Need A Health Care Proxy If You’re Married?

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A health care proxy, also known as a durable power of attorney for health care or a medical power of attorney, is a document that lets you appoint a person to make healthcare decisions on your behalf if you’re ever unable to do so. This person has the power to consult with doctors, review your medical records, and make important decisions about your medical treatment.

But what if you’re married: Doesn’t your spouse automatically get to make those decisions if you’re incapacitated?

It’s not always that simple. If you’re injured or incapacitated and in need of medical attention, doctors and emergency personnel will look to your family to make decisions if you haven’t designated a health care proxy. They’ll typically turn to your spouse first, but as was the case with Terri Schiavo, family can sometimes disagree and contest those decisions.

In 1990, Terri suffered from cardiac arrest in her home in Florida. Despite efforts to resuscitate her, the severe lack of oxygen to her brain left her in what is referred to as a persistent vegetative state. After years of her being on life support, her husband Michael began fighting to remove her feeding tube and allow her to die. Her family vehemently disagreed and a long legal battle ensued.

To avoid a potential conflict like this—as well as the real risk of not having your wishes followed—it’s smart to have a health care proxy, no matter how old you are or whether or not you’re married. And a health care proxy also allows you to designate an alternate, so if you and your spouse are in an accident together you still have control over who’s making health care decisions on your behalf.

Who should be your health care proxy

Your health care proxy may be tasked with making life-or-death decisions on your behalf. And sometimes loved ones, through no fault of their own, may not be able to separate your wishes from their own desire and fear of losing you. That emotional bond and connection that can be so wonderful in life can make things more painful and difficult when faced with a medical emergency. (Related: The Hardest Conversation: Your Loved One’s End of Life Wishes.)

Before you appoint your spouse (or anyone) as your health care proxy, discuss with them if they’re ready and willing to follow your wishes for treatment, even if they may be different from what they’d want for you. Sometimes, it’s better to assign that role to another close family member, such as your sibling or adult child, who may be able to maintain more objectivity or composure in an emotionally fraught time.

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