Eliminating the guesswork in matters of life or death

ROBIN CAUDELL/STAFF PHOTOPlattsburgh attorney Van Crockett discusses end-of-life policies and documents during a recent presentation at the Clinton County Senior Council.

PLATTSBURGH — Seniors can eliminate guesswork with a health-care proxy and living will.

Plattsburgh attorney Van Crockett explained the difference between the two in his presentation, "Health Care Proxies, Living Wills & DNR/DNI,” held recently at the Senior Citizens Council in Plattsburgh.

“The health-care proxy is essentially a person signing a form to name another person to make health-care decisions for them,” Crockett said. “Proxy being agent. Proxy being someone is going to do this for me.

"There are certain requirements that are set out in writing, and two people, other than the person you are naming, witness the signature."

Crockett said there are restrictions on who can be named the agent in the health-care proxy.

"It's not a doctor or someone who works in the hospital. It's usually someone, a friend, relative who you feel comfortable that they know what you would want to have happen to you when you are unable to make those decisions.”


A health-care proxy or living will is not used by medical professionals until a doctor determines the person who initiated the documents lacks the capacity to make decisions.

“So, as long as you are able to make decisions ... they are going to look to you to make your own decisions,” Crockett said.

“It's only at the point where a doctor says, this person has lost the ability to make that decision, now we go to the health-care proxy."


For the proxy, people should select someone who knows their wishes, has had frank discussions about life support, treatments, artificial nutrition and hydration and is trustworthy to follow the stated wishes.

“Emotions are going to be involved, but you want someone who will be able to overcome that and follow what you want and not say, 'I can't do it; I can't do it,' and 'I know this is what they want, but I just can't,'” Crockett said.

A close friend may be a more objective choice than a spouse or child, he said.

“Your intent by signing a health-care proxy is to give someone the authority that they are going to be doing what you want them to do,” he said.

“But then again, it doesn't take effect until a doctor has decided you have lost your ability to make your own decisions.”


A person should choose only one agent, someone 18 years or older, to avoid conflict or confusion among loved ones.

An alternate agent can be appointed in case a first choice is unavailable or can't make decisions, for whatever reason.

Neither a first choice nor an alternate agent can sign the proxy form, the scope of which includes health, moral and religious beliefs but does not extend to non-health-care decisions, for instance, financial.

The form should be accessible, and people should always bring the form whenever they go to the hospital, even for minor or outpatient surgery.


One can specify in the health-care proxy what organs or tissues should be recovered for transplantation, research or educational purposes.

As of Aug. 26, 2009, agents are authorized to make decisions on organ and tissue donation in the case of death, as noted on the proxy form.

All health-care providers are legally required to provide agents with a patient's status, prognosis and options.


A health-care proxy is statutory, and a living will is not.

“The big difference between a health-care proxy and living will is that in a living will you are not naming anybody,” Crockett said.

“In a health-care proxy, you are essentially saying, 'I'm giving Mr. X, Miss X, the authority to make all these decisions.'

"A living will, you are basically putting down in writing: 'This is what I want to have happen. This is what I want to have happen to me at that point.'"

Many people prefer having both a living will and a proxy, he said.

“What you usually use a living will for if you have a proxy is so that the proxy has something to follow," Crockett said. "You put it down in writing, too.”

A living will eliminates, "I think Aunt Suzie would have wanted this," he said.

"Aunt Suzie" can decline to have surgery, antibiotics, cardiac resuscitation, respiratory support, artificially administered feeding and fluids and intubation.

“The same as the health-care proxy, the living will has to be witnessed by two people,” Crockett said.

“What you're doing with the proxy, you're appointing someone else to make those decisions for you versus a living will, this is what I want."

Crockett said it's worthwhile to give the paperwork to your doctor, friends and relatives.

"The best case is to make copies and spread it among them.”

Email Robin Caudell:




CONTACT: Van Crockett, Esq.

WHERE: Rural Law Center of New York, 22 U.S. Oval, Suite 203, Plattsburgh.

PHONE: (518) 561-5460.

EMAIL: van@rurallawcenter.org

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