A cancer diagnosis is a life-changing event that can alter the way you think about your future. Having leukemia can put life into perspective and bring up issues that you may not have thought about, including how you want to be cared for if you’re unable to decide or advocate for yourself.
Many people struggle with advance care planning, such as creating a living will or completing different types of advance directives. Planning for your future ensures that your wishes are fulfilled and gives your loved ones guidance in the face of challenges. Familiarizing yourself with your state laws for designating a medical power of attorney agent will help you appoint the best person to advocate for your quality of life, care services, and preferred leukemia treatments.
A medical power of attorney, sometimes called a durable power of attorney for health care, is a legal document that gives another person the ability to make medical decisions on your behalf if you’re unable to make the decisions yourself. The person you choose may be referred to as your:
A medical power of attorney agent must follow any predetermined guidelines that you specify. However, the agent can make significant decisions, including whether to keep you on life support or discontinue medical treatment. A medical power of attorney isn’t just for end-of-life care — it may also come into effect if you lose decision-making abilities temporarily, such as in the case of a coma.
In the United States, specific laws vary from state to state for setting up a medical power of attorney. For most parts of the United States, there’s a simplified form you can use to designate your health care agent. This bare-bones multistate form is valid in every state except Ohio, New Hampshire, Texas, and Wisconsin. Each of these other states has its own mandatory disclosure statement.
You should be able to find medical power of attorney forms on your state government’s website. Most states don’t require a notary, but typically two witnesses must be present to certify that you signed the forms. Different states have specific rules on who can serve as a witness, so be sure to read the terms carefully or seek legal counsel. If you are in the hospital, the social worker there can guide you.
The rules may vary by state, but in general, a person must meet a few criteria before they can be given medical power of attorney. For instance, your agent must be over 18 years of age or legally emancipated. The agent can’t be your health care provider or your residential care provider (if you live in a facility) or related to either of these people.
Steer clear of choosing anyone you don’t fully trust or don’t believe can handle the decision-making responsibilities. There’s a lot to consider before signing a medical power of attorney document, including whether you feel the other person is up to the task. Just because someone loves you doesn’t mean they’re the best choice to act as your representative.
Examples of the people who are typically appointed to be health care agents include:
Ideally, you should choose a medical power of attorney agent before your capacity comes into question. Because circumstances may change over time, you have the right to change your agent or revoke their rights as long as you’re still capable of making your own health care decisions. If a spouse was given the power of attorney, they may have this right removed if a divorce occurs. Be sure to read through the terms or meet with a lawyer or social worker who can help explain the ins and outs of your medical power of attorney document before signing.
If you don’t choose a medical power of attorney agent, one may be chosen for you. The following people are legally authorized to make decisions about your health care (in the order listed) if you’re incapacitated:
You can put paperwork in place to specify if you don’t want any of the above people having power over your care. Designating a medical power of attorney agent ensures that your preferred person or people will be in charge of communicating with your health care providers.
Of course, there’s always some risk involved when you give another person legal authority over your rights. Medical power of attorney doesn’t come into play unless you lack the mental capacity or ability to communicate, however. A doctor must verify your inability to make health care decisions before your agent can intervene. You can also set limits on the types of medical decisions your agent can make for you, and the agent must follow any instructions you’ve provided. If a court believes that your health care agent is not acting in your best interests or in line with your previously designated desires, the right of medical power of attorney can be revoked.
While selecting a medical power of attorney agent, you may also want to put other legal documents in place that define the type of medical treatment you want, how your bank accounts will be managed, and who will care for your children (if applicable). Ask your oncology care team for a referral to a social worker or lawyer who can assist you with getting your affairs in order.
You may want to complete the following documents:
For both medical and business affairs, power of attorney ends after death. That’s why it’s a good idea to put a will in place, as well. A will is a legal document outlining what you’d like to happen to your property and dependents if you’re no longer living. Without a will, your assets will be distributed and managed based on your state laws, delaying distribution of assets and incurring probate costs that will come out of your inheritance.
Taking these steps isn’t just important for people with leukemia but also for any adult who wants a say in their medical care. Getting your paperwork done sooner rather than later will give you one less thing to worry about in the future. Be sure to store your documents in a safe place where they can be found, such as a fireproof metal box or home safe. A safe deposit box at the bank may be difficult for loved ones to access.
Talking to other people who understand what you are going through can be a great source of emotional support.
MyLeukemiaTeam is the social network for people with leukemia. On MyLeukemiaTeam, more than 9,600 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with leukemia.
Have you designated a medical power of attorney? How did you choose the right person, and what was the process like? Share your insight in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting to your Activities page.