more than 10 years I have represented LGBT people who want to make sure
their choices and decisions are honored by their families and the state
of North Carolina. These clients are wise to do so. If Terri Schiavo
had stated her wishes clearly, they would have been honored years ago.
She did not have a Living Will. You can.
A Living Will is a document that tells your loved ones and your doctor
that you do not want extraordinary medical measures taken if you have a
terminal and incurable illness or if your brain ceases to function. You
can also use it to say whether you want a feeding tube or not.
A Living Will isn’t about illness or death. It is about control.
That’s what a Living Will gives you — control over the decision
to prolong life artificially or not. It is a simple statement of your wishes
about things like artificial life support and feeding tubes.
Another important document to have is a Health Care Power of Attorney.
With it you name who you want to make medical and/or mental health treatment
decisions for you if you are unable. This document is vital if you want
your partner to make these decisions for you and to be able to visit you
in the hospital.
The Health Care Power of Attorney and Living Will work together to ensure
your health care and end of life decisions follow your wishes.
Some people want every medical procedure possible. Others do not. The key
is for each of us to make our wishes known so our partners, friends, and
families don’t have to worry and wonder what we would want.
A Living Will and a Health Care Power of Attorney are fairly easy documents
to do. As with all legal documents it is important to talk with an attorney
to make sure you fully understand the documents and are executing them
Here are some questions I commonly hear:
Does a Living Will let someone “pull the plug” early? No.
What if I am in a coma? No, a Living Will only applies if either (1) the
individual has a terminal and incurable illness and something happens to
make death imminent or (2) the person is in a persistent vegetative state,
meaning he or she does not have significant brain wave activity. Neither
of these situations is a coma.
What about if I am sick and expected to recover? A Living Will doesn’t
apply in this situation. It only applies in the situations described in
the answer above.
Is a Living Will the same as a Last Will and Testament? They are two completely
different documents. A Living Will states your wishes about medical intervention.
A Last Will and Testament is a document in which you distribute your property
at death. In it you can also name a guardian for your children, state your
wishes for burial or cremation, etc.
What is the difference between a Living Will and a Health Care Power of
Attorney? A Living Will is your statement about whether you want extraordinary
medical intervention in two specific instances: 1) if you have an illness
that is terminal and incurable; or 2) if your brain has ceased to function.
A Health Care Power of Attorney is where you name someone to make medical
and/or mental health treatment decisions for you if you are not able to
make them for yourself. A Health Care Power of Attorney covers many more
health care decisions than a Living Will and it gives decision-making authority
to the person you choose.
Where should I keep my Living Will and/or Health Care Power of Attorney?
Keep them with your other important papers and let someone know where to
find them. It is a good idea to make a copy of each document, give it to
your doctor and explain your wishes with him or her. Ask your doctor to
make notes about your wishes in your medical file. You can also register
your Living Will and Health Care Power of Attorney on the state registry
at www.sosnc.com. Once they are registered you can access them through
the website using a private password you’ll be given.
I don’t have a doctor. Can I still do a Living Will and/or Health
Care Power of Attorney? Yes, absolutely.
I have a doctor now but what if I change doctors? No problem. Simply give
your new doctor a copy of your Living Will and Health Care Power of Attorney
and talk to him or her about your wishes. Make sure he or she notes your
wishes in your medical file.
What happens if I do not have a Living Will? Your next of kin (usually
close family members) will have to decide whether you would want extraordinary
medical procedures or a feeding tube to prolong your life if you have a
terminal and incurable illness or are brain-dead. If they do not agree
there can be problems.
Do I need both a Living Will and a Health Care Power of Attorney? It is
a good idea but you should decide based on your own wishes and circumstances.
An attorney can help you understand what will be best for you.
Connie J. Vetter is an attorney in private practice in Charlotte, N.C.
Learn more at www.cjvlaw.com.