What’s the Difference between a Power of Attorney and a Health Care Proxy?

February 8, 2018 – Planning for the day when you might not be able to make decisions for yourself can be difficult, saddening, and confusing.  There are so many terms and forms that it can be hard to figure out what you might need to fill out.  Below are some common documents to keep in mind.


A Power of Attorney (PoA) grants a specific person or persons (maybe a family member or close friend) the authority to make financial decisions on your behalf.  It can allow the trusted and designated “attorney-in-fact” or “agent” access to your bank accounts, the ability to make or settle insurance claims, operate your businesses, make investment choices, pay bills, or really do anything involving your money.  You, the principal, can give your agent(s) as much or as little control as you like.  This should be done if you’ll be out of the country for an extended period of time, such as for a military deployment or long vacation.

A PoA can also be drafted to be durable, meaning that it will still have effect if you become incapacitated in some way, such as recovering from a surgery, suffering from some kind of debilitating disease, or as the result of an accident.  Without the special durable designation, the PoA authority granted to your agent will expire upon your incapacitation or death, potentially leading to confusion and long court proceedings for those who love and wish to care for you.  An attorney can help to guide you through the drafting process if you want to make it durable.


A Health Care Proxy is similar to a PoA, except this agent makes decisions about your healthcare if you are unable to do so because of illness or sudden injury.  Your proxy could decide which medical facility treats you, what services or surgeries are administered, and even what potential end of life care looks like.  You can give HIPAA Authorization to your proxy as well.

While the proxy has the authority to make choices, many people find it helpful to write out a living will.  Although not formally recognized in Massachusetts, living wills (aka health care directives) spell out exactly what treatment you do or do not want in a variety of situations (such as your feelings on artificial life support, what medicine you don’t want, and so on).  It is useful to write down your wishes and communicate them with your trusted and appointed proxy in order to advise them on how you want to be cared for if you ever can’t properly communicate.


Life can change in an instant.  Car accidents happen, falls occur, and you can be left without proper decision making ability in a matter of seconds.  That’s why it’s so important to have these difficult conversations with family, friends, potential agents, and your attorney before anything bad happens.  Remember that these aren’t just for the elderly: tragedy can strike anyone at any time.

If you’re interested in learning more about establishing Powers of Attorney or Health Care Proxy, or if you just have some questions, contact the Boston Bar Association’s Lawyer Referral Service to access our vast network of experienced attorneys.  Call us at 617-742-0625, or fill out our online form to get a fast, free, and reliable referral today!