This month’s question looks at the difference between a health care proxy in NY and a Living Will.

A client asked this question: “I am in my late 80’s and widowed. I recently spoke with my family about how I want to be cared for if I become ill and about my wishes for “pulling the plug”. But my doctor says I need a health care proxy to authorize my family to make those decisions for me. Is this correct?”

Beth’s Answer: Yes, your physician is well informed about the law of medical decision-making. But there is a second document you can also prepare to convey your specific wishes to your family and physician if you are unable to make your own healthcare decisions.

Yes, you need a health care proxy for future medical decisions if you are incapacitated and cannot make those decisions yourself. For example, you may have memory impairments or are unconscious.

While the health care proxy can make end of life (“pull the plug”) decisions, it is also broader. The health care proxy gives your designated agent and optional alternate agent the authority to make all medical choices for you if a medical practitioner confirms that you cannot make informed medical decisions about your own care.

And, since you feel strongly about end-of life-decisions, you also can write a living will to describe your specific healthcare wishes. It can cover many options, including withholding or removing feeding tubes (called artificial nutrition and hydration in NY State), cardiac resuscitation, blood transfusion, intubation, and even antibiotics. Although the living will is not law yet in NY State, it can help guide your family and loved ones who have to make difficult decisions for you at an emotional time.

I encourage you to take the time to prepare your health care proxy, and be sure to give a copy to your family and your physician(s). And if you feel very strongly about end-of-life decisions, also write your living will, sign it in front of two witnesses, and make your family aware that you have  the living will and where it is stored.


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