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Understanding healthcare power of attorney

There are many useful estate planning tools available in Washington. Each tool serves a different purpose. For example, someone could give durable powers of attorney to a representative they trust—often called an agent. Durable powers of attorney permit the agent to make legal decisions on behalf of that individual.

Powers of attorney can involve a wide range of matters, including managing someone's finances after they pass on. It is up to the principal—the individual who created the estate plan—to decide what responsibilities their agent should have.

One of the most common types of this document is the durable medical powers of attorney. Here are some essential details to know about this estate planning tool.

Durable powers of attorney and healthcare decisions

This document entrusts an agent with various responsibilities, including decisions regarding:

  • Surgery options
  • Treatments
  • Medications
  • General care

Most importantly, an agent is supposed to make these decisions in good faith. That means that when they act on behalf of another individual, their decision revolves around the other person's needs and wishes instead of their own.

HIPAA and durable powers of attorney

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) of 1996 protects a patient's privacy. It is the federal law that prohibits physicians from discussing medical information with anyone else, besides the patient.

These protections are important. However, they can pose a problem if that patient is not conscious or able to discuss their treatment or care. 

If written correctly, durable powers of attorney waive those HIPAA rights. That way, the agent can discuss critical medical matters with their loved one's physician and other medical staff, so that they can make informed decisions.

How living wills and powers of attorney work together

A living will already allows individuals to clarify their medical decisions before they are unable to speak for themselves. Many people might be under the impression they can only choose one of these tools for their estate plan.

That is not necessarily true. Both of these estate planning tools can work together to protect one's rights to make their own medical choices. An agent with durable powers of attorney speaks for the principal. They can help ensure that medical staff and family members follow the wishes outlined in the living will. 

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