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OpEd: Schiavo case shows importance of guarding your relationship through legal documents

by Connie J. Vetter, Esq.
For 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 correctly.

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.


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