Is that guy asking to see your patient, her boyfriend or her husband? You can’t always tell right away. Today, people wait a while to get married, instead of doing so in their early 20s. “Boyfriend” and “girlfriend” can cover a wide range of points with a relationship’s progression. It could be a couple who has only known each other for a couple of months and just recently decided to date each other exclusively. They could have been dating for several years, and be engaged to get married soon. They could even be one of those couples who’s been together for almost a decade, but who hasn’t seen the financial or personal need to get formally legally married yet.
All these shades of distinction can be confusing in a healthcare setting, because regardless of what their relationship is actually like, there are legal considerations that healthcare professionals must keep in mind. A spouse is different, from a legal perspective than an unmarried romantic partner, regardless of how long they’ve been together or what their relationship is like. Making the wrong decision could put you at legal risk, so it’s really important to verify that two people are actually legally married.
In serious medical emergencies, a person’s spouse may be able to make serious medical decisions on their behalf. If a person is unconscious and the prognosis isn’t good, a spouse will often take on the role of power of attorney. But can someone make medical or financial decisions for their unmarried partner?
Not without signed authorization.
Now, there are documents that couples can fill out to prepare for this possible contingency. Healthcare advanced directives and powers of attorney can, in fact, be assigned to an unmarried partner, but this must be handled ahead of time. You have to have these documents arranged, or there are serious obstacles in place that can prevent your partner from acting in your best interests. Instead, biological relatives are generally given preference for these things.
Health Care Directives
For unmarried partners who cohabit in long-term relationships, but do not necessarily wish to become legally married per se, individual states have laws that allow people to create documents that outline what kinds of treatments they do or do not, wish to receive if they are not conscious and cannot communicate for themselves. Within these documents, you may name someone to act on your behalf.
Without these documents, preference goes to biological relatives instead. In some cases, the relatives in question may not consider the partner’s input, or may not act in the patient’s best interest.
Although unmarried and unconnected partners don’t enjoy the same rights as spouses, registered domestic or civil partners in many states are indeed given priority for making decisions on a patient’s behalf. Although the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of federal same-sex marriage rights in 2015 in the Oberfell vs Hodges decision, many same-sex couples may still be classified as a civil partnership, and may not have pursued marriage yet when something happens to one of them.
For couples who are neither civil partners nor married spouses, there are two kinds of health care directives that can be arranged ahead of time. You need to create a written statement about your preferences, which can be disseminated to the medical personnel who are caring for you. This document functions as a contract between a patient and their attending physician.
There is another option known as “durable power of attorney for health care.” You may appoint a person of your choice, whether it’s an unmarried partner, a spouse, or a direct relative, as your proxy or surrogate if you are unable to communicate your own health care preferences. Any adult over 18 can create this document, and it takes effect if you suddenly no longer have the capacity to communicate your preferences due to an injury or illness.