Living Will
(Right to Die Declaration)

Article by R. Joseph Ritter, Jr. CFP® EA

As with a Will, documents such as a Health Care Directive (Health Care Surrogate), Power of Attorney and Living Will express in writing your intentions concerning your care and financial matters should you be unable to speak for yourself. Examples include a car accident when you are taken to the hospital, heart attack, stroke, or other emergency medical situation, severe brain injury, or other serious medical event that is not anticipated.

The Living Will is an entirely separate document which only comes into play if you are diagnosed with a terminal illness, brain dead condition, or vegetative state. As with the Health Care Directive, the Living Will appoints a person to speak on your behalf and make decisions for you in the event you cannot speak for yourself. Unlike the Health Care Directive, however, some states provide Living Will forms which allow you to express your intentions within the document. However, if your state does not have such a form, it is important to have an understanding with the person you appoint as to what your intentions would be if something were to happen.

This is an important document because it can save protracted legal battles, significant medical bills and other large expenses which would otherwise be associated with such an event. Without a Living Will, a family may need to go to Court to get an Order authorizing the hospital to remove life support.

These decisions may be difficult to make because no one wants to admit to the possibility of such a problem occurring. Remember that these documents only come into play if you cannot (and are not expected to) speak for yourself and, in the case of a Living Will, have been diagnosed with a condition from which you are not expected to recover. This means that all other medical treatment and possibilities would have been explored and exhausted or the underlying injury was so severe as to cause irreparable damage.

Also, remember that in most cases the Living Will specifically refers to not wanting to be kept alive artificially. This includes feeding if you are unconcsious and not expected to recover, artificial breathing, and other artificial life sustaining measures which have become possible with today’s medical advancements.  While such advancements are often good, there have been well known cases which have drawn national media attention and highlight that the doctor is not going to make the decision on what to do with a diagnosis. Their job is only to make a diagnosis and provide treatment options. Their instructions must come from the patient or the patient’s representative.

At 39 years old, I woke up at 5am one day with severe abdominal pain. I thought it was from bloating, gas or some other intestinal issue. I pushed through the pain to get the kids ready to go to school and drove to work. By 9am the pain was no different, and I couldn’t concentrate at work. I finally decided to go to the hospital, and wound up having surgery the next day and spending a total of 5 days in the hospital. During the surgery I was to be given general anesthesia, and this was my first surgery.

The nurses asked me a barrage of questions, including whether I had a Health Care Directive and Living Will. I was able to answer yes to the Health Care Directive, but no to the Living Will. It was a decision I had put off for the same reason everyone else puts it off – I didn’t want to deal with end of life issues and was hesitant about putting the power in someone else’s hands to “pull the plug.”

As I laid in the hospital bed waiting for the surgery, I made up my mind that a Living Will should be signed because of the “what if” factor. What if something goes wrong? I do not want to put my family through dealing with me being on life support and the doctors left in a position of demanding a court order to keep me alive or pull the plug.

Yes, some cases have gone so far as to require a court order to resolve family differences. Do you really want your medical treatment and end of life issues to be decided by a judge whom you’ve never met?

A Living Will is important for spouses, parents with adult children and other situations involving blood relatives and family relationships, so that end of life decisions can be made. However, the Living Will is even more important in homosexual relationships, unions with a partner and cohabitation relationships. The reason is that medical staff and hospital personnel will look first to blood relatives and family members for decisions and to disclose end of life diagnosis information. A close friend or partner would often be excluded, leaving important decisions and information in the hands of family members who may not wish to speak with your partner. A Living Will that appoints your partner ensures he or she has the authority to make decisions on end of life issues and receive diagnosis information.

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