When it comes to managing a loved one’s medical care, it’s important to understand that laws that regulate the health care industry are very strict about who can receive status updates, participate in conversations with doctors and nurses, and make medical decisions. These policies are meant to protect our sensitive health information, but they can also pose serious problems for family caregivers.

There are ways to gain access to a loved one’s medical records and the ability to make care decisions on their behalf, but these legal permissions must be established before they are needed. Unfortunately, many families do not realize that any special paperwork is required for them to participate in a loved one’s care, and the consequences of being unprepared can be very stressful for everyone involved.

You might be barred from accessing vital medical information, speaking with their health insurance provider, or directing your loved one’s care if they are incapacitated or incompetent. In a worst-case scenario, you may need to go to court and petition for guardianship to obtain these legal powers. Fortunately, families can avoid this time-consuming and expensive scenario by working together to prepare three necessary legal documents that will enable them to make critical care decisions.

Important Medical and Legal Documents for Caregivers

  1. HIPAA Authorization Form

    The Health Information Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) provides legal standards for keeping a person’s health information and records private. This means it is illegal for medical professionals to share any details about your care recipient’s health unless they gave their written consent for you to receive this sensitive information. HIPAA authorization is a simple yet important document for family caregivers. It authorizes the doctor to keep approved family members in the loop regarding a loved one’s medical status and billing information. This form only takes a moment to complete, and every doctor’s office should have blank ones on hand for patients. All you need to do is request that your loved one grants you access to their health care information by filling out and signing this form.
  2. Medical Power of Attorney (POA)

    Also known as a health care proxy or power of attorney for health care, this legal document enables a person (called the “principal”) to appoint a trusted relative or friend (called the “agent”) to handle specific health care decisions on their behalf.
    HIPAA authorization only grants a caregiver access to information, but a medical POA grants this as well as the ability to make medical decisions on behalf of a care recipient in the event they become incapacitated. There is a catch, though. This document must be prepared while a principal still has the mental capacity to give an agent these powers.
    Both medical and financial power of attorney documents are crucial for long term care planning. Realistic future planning, including preparing for the possibility of dementia and other medical emergencies is the most proactive way to ensure medical decisons are communicated to the right people. It is important for the principal to trust that their agent understands their health care goals, their preferences for type and place of care, and that they will act in their best interests. This is where the third legal document, an advance directive, comes into play.
  3. Advance Care Directives

    Advance directives go by many different names, but a living will tends to be the most well known. Generally, these documents allow a person to record their wishes for emergency and/or end-of-life care before a medical crisis strikes. With a living will, an elder’s loved ones don’t have to agonize over difficult medical decisions. This document essentially spells out instructions for a medical POA to follow when managing their care. A living will typically indicates specific treatments, such as CPR or life support, that a person does or does not want to receive under certain circumstances. To learn more about other advance care planning documents, read Advance Care Directives: Preparations for the Unforeseeable Future.

Don’t Procrastinate on Legal Paperwork

Making medical decisions for elderly parents or a spouse is a difficult job to begin with. To avoid unnecessary stress and confusion, talk to your family members about getting their affairs in order. It is important for all adults to discuss their personal wishes with loved ones while they are still young and healthy. Once a health care emergency strikes, it is usually too late to prepare these documents.

An elder law attorney can discuss individual questions and concerns, prepare these legal documents, and recommend additional estate planning tools that may be useful for your family’s circumstances.

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