What is an agent (also called proxy or attorney-in-fact)?

An agent is the person designated in a Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care (DPA) to make decisions regarding health care for the signer of the DPA. The DPA only becomes effective in the event that the signer is temporarily or permanently unable to make or communicate their desires regarding their own health care.

How much authority is granted to an agent in a DPA?

Appointing an agent is particularly important, since the agent may make life and death decisions on a person's behalf in the future. If a DPA becomes effective, when a decision needs to be made a patient's agent can consult with the doctor and make treatment decisions based on the patient's preferences. The person writing a DPA can define how much or how little authority is to be given to the agent. Also, other persons, called alternates, may be named to act as alternate agents if the primary agent cannot.

Who should a person select as their agent?

The person named in a Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care should be someone the signer trusts and who has agreed to act as the signer's agent. A person's doctor, nurse, or any other person providing health care to the person on the date the DPA is signed cannot be the agent, unless that person is a close relative. An agent will have great power over a person's health care if the DPA becomes effective.

As a rule, no other person or agency supervises or reviews an agent's decisions. If a person does not want anyone to serve as an agent, no agent should be named. Instead, the person can rely on an advance directive to communicate preferences regarding medical treatment under certain conditions to guide a doctor or court-appointed decision-maker.