A recent survey by legal resource FindLaw revealed that two-thirds of Americans don’t have a living will, often referred to as a health care directive in states like California and Tennessee. This means many individuals leave it to their loved ones, or even their chosen attorneys in Gallatin, TN, to deal with difficult decisions involving their health, life, and death. However, given the cases of Estelle Browning and Terri Schiavo, the importance of a living will cannot be emphasized enough.
What exactly is a living will? A living will is a legal document individuals write to instruct other people what to do in case they can no longer communicate their wishes because of permanent unconsciousness (i.e. coma) or a terminal illness. Unlike a conventional will that spells out how to distribute or dispose of possessions after a person’s death, a living will indicates what to do while the person, though considerably sick, is still alive. It notes the forms of healthcare a person would like to receive when nearing the end of his or her life, including whether or not they want to be kept on long-term life support.
How did a living will—or the lack of one—matter in the cases of Estelle Browning and Terri Schiavo, who were kept alive by feeding tubes for years? Estelle Browning signed a living will directing that “life-prolonging procedures be withheld” if these would only delay her inevitable death. However, her wishes were not honored, and her case led to a landmark ruling on the right to die. On the other hand, Terri Schiavo did not have a living will, complicating the question of whether or not her feeding tube should be removed. When it was, her resulting death became much-publicized and scrutinized.
Kenneth J. Phillips, a Gallatin divorce lawyer who also handles wills and advance directives, says that a living will serves at least three purposes. First, it ensures that a person’s wishes regarding medical care will be followed. Second, it reduces stress for an individual’s loved ones by outlining what they should do on behalf of their relative. Third, it lets one state particular intentions, like donating any functional organs to people who need them.
For people who are considering drafting a living will or a health care directive, there are a few tips to consider. First, it is important that one’s wishes or instructions are clear and consistent so that there will be no room for misinterpretation. Second, copies of the document should be made, with the original kept someplace where loved ones can easily find it. Third, the document must conform to the laws in the state where one is living. To follow this third tip, it may also be necessary to consult with an attorney knowledgeable in these matters.