Choosing an Emergency Contact—It Matters

Your emergency contact may have a bigger job than you think.

By , Attorney · Florida International University College of Law

You may not think much about it, but the person you name as your emergency contact has a big job and may even need to make life or death decisions on your behalf. Before writing someone's name on your medical forms, make sure that the person you want to name:

  • is up for the job
  • will be available when needed
  • knows your medical history
  • has the legal power to act on your behalf
  • can communicate your situation to others as needed, and
  • understands and is willing to uphold your wishes for medical care.

The Job of the Emergency Contact

You might view selecting an emergency contact as nothing more than a formality when filling out enrollment forms, completing paperwork at a new job, or when visiting a doctor's office, but an emergency contact does more than just answer the phone if something goes wrong. The ideal emergency contact is able to talk to medical professionals about medical history, allergies, chronic conditions, and current medications. In some cases, they even make medical decisions for their loved one. This can be life-saving in an emergency, so it's important to choose someone who is willing to do the job, can answer those questions, and who also has the legal right to act on your behalf.

Make Sure Your Emergency Contact Is On Board

You may feel confident that the person you name will have no problem acting as your emergency contact. While that may be true, don't forget to tell them that you've given them this job. Making sure that you and your loved one are on the same page will also avoid a terrifying surprise in the event that they are actually needed, and it will also give you a chance to make sure they have the necessary information to act as your advocate.

Additionally, it makes sense to ask your emergency contact to be available during any specific procedures. If the person you name is often tied up at work or with other obligations, they may not be the ideal person to act as your emergency contact.

Your Emergency Contact Should Know Your Medical History

If something happens, your emergency contact might need to explain your medical history, allergies, or medications. Ideally, your emergency contact will know that information and be able to communicate it to medical professionals. While it's a good idea to provide this information during a face-to-face conversation, you might also give your emergency contact a written copy of your medical history—even if it's just a simple list. That way, your emergency contact won't have to rely on memory in an emergency.

Give Your Emergency Contact the Legal Power to Act on Your Behalf

An emergency contact is the first person medical personnel will get in touch with in an emergency, but your emergency contact may not have the legal authority to act on your behalf unless you explicitly provide that power. For example, an emergency contact can answer questions and contact other people for you, but unless there is some legal relationship between you and your emergency contact, your emergency contact won't have the authority to direct what kind of medical treatment you should (or should not) receive.

Spouses and close family members usually have the legal authority to make such medical decisions on your behalf. But if your loved ones disagree about the type of medical care you should receive, a fight about your treatment can potentially turn into a legal battle.

To avoid this possibility, use a medical power of attorney to give someone (and some alternates) the power to make medical decisions on your behalf. Depending on your state's laws, this person is called your health care agent, proxy, or surrogate. Stating this choice in a legal document makes it clear to all involved who should make medical decisions about your health care if you cannot speak for yourself.

Ideally, you will name the same person to be your agent and your emergency contact. Since your emergency contact is the first person the doctors will notify in the event of an emergency, it makes sense that they also have the authority to make decisions about your medical care.

Your Emergency Contact Is a Gatekeeper of Information

Your emergency contact should be aware of your privacy concerns. This person will be acting as a gatekeeper of information among you, your doctors, and those who need to be apprised of your situation (such as loved ones or employers). Your emergency contact should understand which loved ones to inform about your condition and what information to pass on, if any.

Some emergency situations may arise from private medical conditions or procedures. If there is something you're not comfortable sharing with your loved ones—or if you want to limit the amount of information they receive—inform your emergency contact of any privacy concerns beforehand. This will help avoid potential disclosures you're not ready to make.

Your emergency contact should also know which people should be notified in the event of an emergency. For example, you may want your emergency contact to inform specific family members about your condition, or you may not want your family informed at all. Discussing these possibilities in advance will help your emergency contact respect your privacy.

Make Sure Your Emergency Contact Understands and Respects Your Wishes

The last thing to consider is whether your emergency contact understands your wishes and is willing to carry them out. This is especially important if your emergency contact is also your health care agent under your medical power of attorney. If there are treatments or invasive life-saving procedures you do or don't want performed, you want your emergency contact to know what your preferences are in case you can't speak for yourself.

You can also document your wishes for medical care using a health care directive (traditionally called a "living will"). In many states, a medical power of attorney and a living will are combined in one document, often called an "advance directive." Each state has its own requirements for health care directives, but it typically requires notarized documents that describe the type of medical care you want to receive.

When you make your wishes legally known, your agent and your doctors must do everything they can to follow your preference for medical care. Doing this gives your emergency contact, health care agent, doctors, and family a clear understanding of your wishes.

Get Help If You Need It

If you have questions or concerns about the rights of your emergency contact, get help from an experienced estate planning attorney. A little advanced planning can help make a difficult situation less stressful for everyone involved.

You can also use reputable software or an online service like Nolo's Quicken WillMaker to make a health care directive that's valid in your state.

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