August 3, 2011
The following article is Part One to a three part series related to Estate Planning.
The Living Will, commonly referred to as an “advanced directive”, was first created over fifty (50) years ago to enable people to provide direction to their families and health care providers regarding medical decisions and, in some instances, end-of-life decisions prior to reaching the point where they are unable to make those decisions for themselves. One of the most common estate-planning questions asked is, “How can I ensure that I am able to die the way I want to?” In many cases, people become so consumed with planning for the distribution of their land and personal belongings that they fail to properly plan for their own basic needs when faced with an unexpected illness or traumatic accident.
A Living Will allows a person to express and state their wishes related to healthcare decision-making, types of treatment they do or do not want in the event of a life-threatening or incurable disease or sickness, and who is given the power to make certain health care related decisions on their behalf. In addition, the Living Will allows a person to dictate their wishes while they are competent and spare themselves unwanted suffering, medical treatment and expenses during periods of incompetency, unconsciousness or terminal illness for which there is no reasonable medical expectation of recovery. A Living Will can remove much of the stress and emotional torment faced by your loved ones when they are faced with the very difficult task of making end-of-life decisions for you.
As the medical industry and technology continue to advance and prolong life, the importance of planning for end-of-life and debilitating illness decisions has become increasingly important. One of the most widely known and best examples of the failure to have a Living Will is the Terri Schiavo case. Terri Schiavo suffered full cardiac arrest and collapsed in her home in Florida in February of 1990. As a result of the incident, Mrs. Schiavo suffered severe brain damage due to a prolonged lack of oxygen. She spent two and a half months in a coma before her doctors determined that she would live the rest of her life in a vegetative state. Her husband was appointed legal guardian by a Florida court, and after numerous failed efforts by Terri’s doctors over the next several years to rehabilitate her, her husband began an effort to remove her feeding tube; a decision he thought his wife would want. However, after a very tumultuous and bitter dispute with Terri’s parents, a Court ruled in early 2000, ten years after the initial medical emergency causing Terri’s condition, to remove her feeding tube. Despite that Court’s ruling, Terri’s husband and parents continued to fight through multiple state and federal court proceedings before Terri finally passed away in March of 2005.
The Terry Schiavo situation have prompted significant and far reaching legislative reform dealing with issues of end-of-life and terminal illness health care. The amount of resources, time, expenses and emotional distress associated with Terri Schiavo’s fifteen (15) year end-of-life illness is staggering. Had Terri executed a Living Will prior to her illness leading to death, she could have spared her family this bitter and expensive dispute.
The Living Will is but one mechanism that can help relieve the stress and worry which burdens your loved ones at a very difficult time. The issues addressed in a Living Will are personal decisions which only you should have the right to make. While the task may not be pleasant, the consequences of avoiding making a Living Will can be significant. It is important to note, Terri Schiavo was only twenty-six (26) years old when she unexpectedly collapsed in her home setting off the chain of events that followed. It is never too early to plan for an inevitable truth we all must face. When you begin the process of putting together an end-of-life plan for you and your family, make sure to discuss with your estate planning professional whether or not a Living Will is right for you.