Most people are familiar with living wills, which generally detail procedures a person does or does not want if he or she becomes incapacitated and needs life-preserving treatment. In addition to a living will, designating a health care surrogate provides further peace of mind that a trusted individual will be making treatment decisions if a person’s ability to communicate is lost.

A health care surrogate designation authorizes a chosen individual to receive medical information and to make decisions regarding the medical care of another. The document may also identify an alternate surrogate in the event the primary is unavailable. The surrogate may make various types of treatment decisions, from the use of life support to the provision of palliative and hospice care.

In Florida, if a surrogate is not designated, the law provides physicians with an ordered list of individuals who can make necessary health care decisions. At the top of this list is a court appointed guardian (if any), followed by a spouse, adult children, adult siblings, a close adult relative, a close adult friend, and finally a specially-appointed social worker. If there is more than one adult child or sibling, the physician will adhere to the decision of the majority. Lacking a chosen surrogate could lead to conflict and confusion among family members during an already stressful time.

Choosing a health care surrogate is an important process not to be undertaken lightly. Once a surrogate is identified, an individual should discuss his or her wishes with that person, and with any alternate surrogates. It may also be wise to consult with an experienced trusts and estates attorney who can ensure your health care designation is properly drafted and effective.