No matter what your personal opinion was about the Terri Schiavo case, there is one clear lesson to be learned: you must take steps to ensure that your health care wishes will be honored. Ms. Schiavo did not have a living will. The lack of this important document left the question of her desire for life sustaining measures open for debate. This debate raged for over 15 years as her husband, her parents, and then Congress and the Courts battled over what each felt she would have wanted.
There has been a lot of talk about living wills and health care proxies lately. These legal documents (often called advance directives or health care directives) are important because they make your medical wishes known if you can’t speak for yourself. If you do not appoint a health care agent, your loved ones may be forced to go to Court to get the authority to make your health care decisions — a complete waste of time and money that can be avoided with a health care proxy.
Here is a brief description of the two primary health care directives and how they protect your wishes:
A Living Will is the directive you use to explain your medical preferences in the event that you are unable to speak for yourself. This is the document you use to indicate whether you would or would not want a feeding tube, a ventilator, etc.
A Health Care Proxy is the directive you use to choose someone to speak for you if you aren’t capable of making your own decisions. This person, often called a health care agent or health care proxy, uses your living will or your other instructions as guidance to make informed decisions about your care. It is important that you choose a trusted individual who will uphold your wishes when the time comes.
Completing these documents is crucial, but it’s still not enough. It’s also essential to do a few other things.
First, you should talk to your loved ones. Tell the person you’ve chosen as your health care proxy that you’ve selected them, and be sure they’re willing to do it. You also need to talk to your family about your medical wishes especially about end-of-life care. The more information your family has about your views, the more you can ensure that your wishes are respected. These discussions can help ease the emotional stress your family may feel in making difficult decisions about your care.
Second, if you have already completed these documents, it’s important to review them periodically to make sure they still reflect your wishes. It’s especially important to update them if your family situation has changed (i.e., do you need to appoint a different health care agent?) or if there’s a change in your medical condition.
Third, it is also critically important that these directives be available to hospitals and doctors right away. It’s vital to have completed and updated your documents, and it’s also essential that they be accessible in an emergency.
A simple message: Stop, take a moment, plan and then let those around you know that plan.
Meg Rudansky is a Sag Harbor-based attorney who specializes in the areas of Elder Law, Estate Planning, and Probate. She can be reached at 725-4778.