Medical Decision Making: Planning for Incapacity in New York

Most people don't worry about suddenly becoming unable to make their own personal, medical decisions. But a serious accident, a stroke or the early onset of Alzheimer's disease can happen to anyone, anytime, at any age.

Fortunately, arrangements can be made for your medical affairs to be carried on in the manner you would like them to be, by the person you would want to make such important decisions for you. The main legal document for this purpose in New York is the "health care proxy."

Many in New York have busy lifestyles; nonetheless, it is essential to take time out of your hectic life to consult with an experienced New York estate planning attorney to plan for the unlikely, but possible, event that you could become unable to make your own health decisions. Your lawyer can advise you about what legal documents you may want to execute, particularly a health care proxy.

You will need to think about who you would trust to make sound medical decisions on your behalf should you become disabled - perhaps a relative or friend, or maybe even a trained professional. You also should consider carefully what values or priorities would be important to you in this situation, and who has similar views or would dutifully carry out yours.

For example, on a very personal level, what if a decision had to be made by medical professionals about whether to resuscitate you; keep you on life support; provide nutrition or hydration in a vegetative state; or administer risky, controversial or experimental medical treatment?

Health Care Proxy

New York law spells out for attending physicians how to make medical decisions when patients are incompetent to do so. The first thing the doctor is supposed to do is find out if the patent has appointed a "health care agent" by executing a "health care proxy." If you designate an adult in this specialized legal document as your health care agent and you are medically unable to make your own decisions, medical providers normally must follow that person's instructions.

The proxy can also give direction to the agent about your treatment wishes and you can limit the extent of the agent's powers. You may also name an alternate agent if the principal agent is unable to serve. It is wise to discuss your wishes with your named agent early on to make his or her service easier if it is ever needed.

Another good reason to designate a health care agent is that if you do not, the law directs the doctor to go down the following list of people in order until a person appropriate, able and willing to act is found:

  • Guardian
  • Spouse or domestic partner (if not legally separated)
  • Adult child
  • Parent
  • Adult sibling
  • Close friend

There may be people on this list that you would not want to have this responsibility, so it is better to appoint whom you would want in a health care proxy.

A New York lawyer with experience in estate and life planning can answer your questions and assist you with these important matters.