Do You Know Who Will Make Your Health Care Decisions If You Cannot?

by Deborah Zaccaro Hoffman

Ohio law recognizes two types of advance directives you can use to express your health care wishes if you are involved in an accident, fall into a coma, or are otherwise unable to make your own decisions. These are the Health Care Power of Attorney and the Living Will. This article explains the differences between the two documents and why they are important for all of us to have, especially if you are in a committed unmarried relationship or have religious concerns about medical procedures. The information in this article can help guide you through this process and assist you in your knowledge of many of the options available to you regarding your personal health care decisions.

Is a Health Care Power of Attorney different from a Living Will?

Though often signed at the same time, these are actually separate documents. A Health Care Power of Attorney allows you to choose a trusted person (your “agent”) to make a wide range of health care decisions any time you are unable to do so. A Living Will gives direct instructions written by you in advance to your health care provider that apply only in the event you are terminally ill or in a permanently unconscious state.

How is a Health Care Power of Attorney different from a regular power of attorney?

A Health Care Power of Attorney is different in two ways: it only grants your agent the authority to make health care decisions, not business decisions. Also, the authority only comes into effect if, for whatever reason, you are unable to make health care decisions on your own behalf.

I already have a regular Power of Attorney. Do I have to use the same person for my Health Care Power of Attorney?

You can use the same person for both documents--and many people do--but you are not required to do so. The practical reality is that people have different talents and life experience, and there may be valid reasons to choose one person who is better with finances to handle your business affairs while another handles your health matters. It would be wise, however, to choose two individuals who can work together.

Will having one of these documents interfere with my religious preferences?

Many people have religious concerns that impact health care decisions, especially regarding blood transfusions and life support. By expressing your health care preferences in advance, an advance directive can help ensure your religious preferences are in fact honored in a crisis. You can also include contact information for a religious leader you want your agent to consult.

My partner and I are not married. Can I appoint my partner in my Health Care Power of Attorney instead of a family member?

For unmarried couples, it is particularly important to have one or both of these documents. In most situations, Ohio law does not specify who can make health care decisions in the event you cannot make them for yourself. Ohio law does specify which family members must be consulted and in what order in the event you are terminally ill or permanently unconscious and cannot make medical decisions. Unmarried partners are not required to be notified or consulted. A partner's request may not be honored absent the authority of an advance directive. As a practical matter, health care providers often turn to a legally-recognized family member under the false assumption that an unmarried person has no one else to consult with in making your health care decisions. Left unaddressed, you will be unable to tell them otherwise.

Deborah Zaccaro Hoffman is an attorney with Fanger & Davidson LLC. She concentrates her practice in general estate planning and family law, special needs planning, disability law, and guardian ad litem work. If you have questions or would like to contact Ms. Hoffman for legal counsel, she can be reached at (440)-605-9641.

This article is intended as general information only. For advice regarding your particular situation, consult a licensed attorney.