Nonspousal Healthcare Authority

By Cozette Vergari 

This article was first published in LOS ANGELES LAWYER / NOVEMBER 2007

Nonspousal Healthcare Authority 

Everyone possesses the precious right to relinquish authority for his or her healthcare decisions, when incapacity arises, to a trusted family member, domestic partner, or friend, as well as a spouse. To do so requires express evidence of intent. The Probate Code generally protects the class of family members, but with no specificity. Domestic partners, if registered with the California secretary of state, are given status equivalent to that of a spouse under the Probate Code and the Family Code. Unregistered domestic partners and friends have no standing under state statutes.

Many middle-aged adults are caring for and assisting their elderly parents. An adult child might presume that he or she has the right to make medical decisions on behalf of the elderly parent when that parent lacks the capacity to do so. Under statutory law, however, no power for this purpose is granted specifically to the adult child. The adult child is only one in a class of family members. All family members have equal standing in the healthcare decisions involving the parent, unless the adult child has been authorized to make decisions on behalf of the patient through an AHCD, surrogacy, or a conservatorship.

Many couples choose to cohabit and not marry. Moreover, same-sex couples are unable to create a legal marital relationship, though they may gain marital rights if they register as same-sex domestic partners. Opposite-sex couples also may resister a domestic partnership if one or both of the partners are over the age of 62.

No matter how parties ultimately weigh the pros and the cons of establishing a legal domestic partnership, an AHCD provides a role for a domestic partner, whether registered or unregistered, in making medical decisions on behalf of his or her incapacitated partner. Further, for opposite-sex unmarried couples, an AHCD can establish their rights to make healthcare decisions for one another even as they choose to abstain from the legal entanglements of marriage.

Another relationship to consider is the parent seeking the authority to make medical decisions for an adult child. A parent is part of the class of family members, in which no one family member has any more power, under statutory law, than another. Further, many of the issues regarding a spouse’s limitations—absent the status of agent (under an AHCD), surrogate, or conservator—will also apply to the parent of an adult child if the adult child is incapacitated.

Once a child attains the age of 18, the right to make personal medical decisions becomes an exclusive right of that adult child. Even if the child is still attending high school, he or she gains this exclusive right at 18, and a parent does not automatically possess sole decision-making power when, for example, the child becomes unconscious due to injuries sustained in an automobile accident. Parents too often presume that the power to make medical decisions for their adult children is their right.

Absent an AHCD, parents fall into the class of family members with no more legal standing than another adult family member. Many hospitals create a hierarchy of decision makers and are likely to place the parents of unmarried young adults at the top of the list. However, there are no guarantees under statutory law. Even if the healthcare providers are listening to the parents, should they deem the parents’ decision to be not in the best interests of the patient, they are not obligated to implement the parents’ choices without an AHCD.

Generally, the most efficient way for an individual to protect his or her intent regarding healthcare in the event of incapacity is the execution of an AHCD. A well-constructed AHCD expresses medical choices clearly, appoints an agent or co-agents, appoints alternate agents, and nominates a conservator if needed. In this document, a person is able to direct and instruct his or her agent, who is not only authorized but obligated to carry out the person’s directives. The agent is empowered to speak—and the healthcare providers must listen.

One last consideration are the restrictions mandated by two laws: the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) and California’s Patient Access to Medical Records Act. The major goal of these laws is to ensure the protection of an individual patient’s health information while balancing the need to provide quality healthcare. The violation of these statutes could result in substantial fines for a healthcare provider or facility.

While the laws have resulted in their intended effect of providing more protection for patient privacy, they have also led to more limited accessibility by a patient’s family members to the patient’s medical records. These records are strictly protected from disclosure to anyone other than the patient. To overcome this obstacle, a patient may execute a written authorization for use and disclosure of his or her information, enabling the patient’s agent to obtain needed information. This written authorization should accompany an AHCD. Estate-planning attorneys should make sure they execute the necessary instrument when they draft an AHCD.

With the execution of an AHCD and an With the execution of an AHCD and an neys will help to empower a spouse, a domestic partner, or other family members to make medical decisions on behalf of an incapacitated loved one. The story of Terri Schiavo, which gained national media attention, was a grim illustration of what can happen to a family without a patient’s expressly written intentions regarding medical treatment. For nearly 16 years, Schiavo existed in a vegetative state while her parents and her spouse battled in court over her end-of-life care. Had Schiavo executed a document like an AHCD, this long nightmare could have been avoided. An AHCD will speak for the patient and will enable the designated agent to carry out the patient’s express wishes.

Cozette Vergari, founder of Vergari & Associates, practices estate planning and family law. She and her staff assist clients in the preparation of wills, trusts, advance healthcare directives, deeds, and powers of attorney, as well as probate and family law proceedings throughout the County of Los Angeles court system.

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