Getting A Living Will

Pinellas Park police officers guard the entrance to the Woodside Hospice Monday, Oct. 20, 2003 in Pinellas Park, Fla., near a round-the-clock vigil outside the facility where Terri Schiavo is cared for. The feeding tube that has nourished Schiavo, 39, for 13 years was removed Oct. 15 after a decade-long legal battle between her husband and parents. AP

Thirty-nine-year old Terri Schiavo has been in a coma since 1990, when her heart stopped because of a chemical imbalance. Her parents have fought to keep her alive and say she still could recover while her husband says she would rather die than be kept alive artificially.

Terri Schiavo did not leave a living will -- a document that states how one would like to be treated when one is incapable of making a decision for oneself. Her case illustrates the importance of having a living will.

Attorney Debra Guzov explains, "Generally speaking, in most states, a living will, will be used in conjunction with what's known as a healthcare power of attorney, which designates a person who will carry out your wishes with respect to healthcare.

Guzov tells The Early Show co-anchor Harry Smith that person is frequently a family member. However, she advises choosing someone removed from the situation, who is not likely to get emotionally involved: "Family members are so intertwined with the situation. They just can't make a level-headed decision under stress."

Guzov says that a living will needs to be very detailed in order for it to be followed.

Here are some reasons to have a living will:
  • You want your wishes carried out

  • You don't want to place burden on others

  • You want to avoid litigation

It is easy to see, especially from the Schiavo case, how divisive this has ended up being. Guzov notes that is always the case.

"Sometimes it's an issue between the state and the family," she says.

In the absence of a living will, Guzov explains, many states legislatively have set up a decision making hierarchy that does not recognize unconventional families such as domestic partners. To add to that, the decision is generally placed in the hands of a single person, and the decision is foisted upon that person who may not have the required information to make the decision. This is still another reason to have a living will and a health care proxy.

In states where there is no such statutory decision making, you may be left with the presumption that you want to continue life support.

Certainly, the living will and health care proxy should be part of overall estate planning, and it is never too early to start. She says everybody should get one over the age of 18.

"Remarkably, only 18 percent of the population over 18 actually has a living will, and people young, old have the same requirements," Guzov notes. "Statistically speaking, it's common for young people to get into car accidents."

It is also important to consider that legal fees can consume family member's lives, not to mention hours in court rather than attending the needs of the ill person who really requires their attention.

Thought the cost of getting a living will varies from state to state, Guzov estimates that it costs around $500.

Here are some living will considerations:
  • Religious beliefs
  • Family
  • Financial situation
  • Age
  • Pain And suffering

Guzov notes, "There are instances when someone might say, 'I want pain medication even though that medication may cause my death.'"

How Do You Get A Living Will?
  • It is always advisable to consult an attorney especially since this is just one aspect of estate planning.

  • While forms can be found on the Internet, one would be ill-advised to rely on a form because in order for a living will to be followed, its terms must be clear and convincing. It is quite possible that the form you download from the Internet does not take all health care questions and scenarios into consideration.

  • In some states such as New York, a person who is granted health care decision making authority is still limited as to decisions they can make, unless there is a clear intention from the person giving the proxy as to those specific issues, such as feeding tubes.

  • Tatiana Morales

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