A theme running through coverage of the tragic case of Terri Schiavo is that if she had only had a living will, the long-running controversy over whether to preserve her life in what court-appointed doctors have called a "persistent vegetative state" could have been avoided.
But living wills, while desirable, are only part of the package of documents that Americans today should have in order to resolve not only end-of-life issues but also broader questions that arise from serious medical conditions.
Experts recommend that the medical and end-of-life documents be part of a broad estate plan, one that includes a regular will and perhaps trusts and other legal instructions that will result in an orderly disposition of a person's property and affairs in ways that minimize family strife, taxes and other costs.
"That's ideal," said attorney Deborah A. Cohn of Paley, Rothman, Goldstein, Rosenberg, Eig & Cooper in Bethesda, "but frankly, if the only issues a person is willing to address are these medical ones, [doing that] at least . . . solves that problem."
The medical issue is most significant for many people. For example, if a young person with few assets dies
intestate (without a will), survivors may face some inconvenience, but nothing that is likely to cause a family disaster. However, if such a person ends up in a coma and the family has no instructions and members disagree over what to do, a Schiavo-like situation could emerge, potentially splitting the family and draining its assets in legal wrangling.
So having the right documents is not just an "old people's issue."
The key items to have for medical issues are:
First, a paper that appoints someone as your agent and authorizes him to make medical decisions for you if and when you cannot. Terminology differs, but this paper is typically referred to as a medical power of attorney, power of attorney for health care, health care proxy or something similar.
Second, a paper that provides a set of instructions, governing what treatment you do and/or don't want in the case of apparently terminal illness. This document is generally called a living will.