What LGBTQ+ Families Need to Know about Their Legal Rights

by Jo Yurcaba

Hospitals shouldn’t be breaking the law, but they sometimes do.

In an emergency situation, you often don’t have time to argue with hospital staff or contact a lawyer for help. In several instances, patients and families who were unaware of their rights have been forced into situations that were actually within their control. As a result, lawyers encourage couples to have two documents ready in case they face resistance from hospital staff: an advance directive and a health proxy, which often work alongside each other.

An advance directive allows you to outline what actions you want a designated surrogate to take in a specific emergency health situation. A health care proxy, sometimes called a durable medical power of attorney, stipulates who should make health decisions on your behalf if you are incapacitated. Depending on the state you live in, these documents can also be called a “living will” or a “medical directive,” according to the American Bar Association.

“Even when you are in a marriage, having those types of documents would be really helpful,” says Omar Gonzalez-Pagan, senior attorney and health care strategist for Lambda Legal, a legal organization that fights for civil rights for LGBTQ+ people. “They would govern even when you have non-supportive family trying to intervene or fight with your partner.” He also recommends having them when you plan to travel out of state.

Drawing up a health care proxy or power of attorney is not free, Gonzalez-Pagan notes. It can cost anywhere from $200 to $500. Though there are free examples of these documents online, Gonzalez-Pagan recommends against using those because state regulations for legal documents differ by state.

In 2010, President Barack Obama signed a presidential memorandum that called for states to enforce laws that bar hospitals from discriminating against same-sex couples. But since then, some LGBTQ+ couples have still been refused their rights to hospital visitation and haven’t been allowed to make medical decisions for their spouses and partners.

“Seeing the advent of marriage equality made the express need for health care proxies and advance directives to be less routine, but it is still a good safety measure that people should take into account when spending their lives together,” Gonzalez-Pagan says. There are LGBTQ+ legal organizations that can point you in the right direction or help you find an attorney.

Families and couples shouldn’t have to jump through legal hoops to ensure they have access to their rights. But in an emergency situation, these documents will help protect you and your loved one.