The name Terri Schiavo is synonymous with what can go wrong if you do not have an advance health-care directive. Terri was a young woman from Florida who became incapacitated to the point that she could not speak, feed herself, or do anything else to take care of herself. Her husband took the position that the plug should be pulled on Terri’s life, while her parents, who were her primary caregivers, claimed that although she was severely incapacitated, Terri’s mind was still functional, and it would be inhuman to pull the plug on her. In this case, “pulling the plug” meant removing the feeding tube that kept Terri alive and allowing her to die of dehydration. When the family could not agree on a course of action, they took their dispute to court.
The case went through the Florida courts, up to the U.S. Supreme Court, and back down to the Florida courts. Congress even got in on the action. Ultimately, when it became clear that the Florida courts had the green light to make a final decision, they sided with Terri’s husband. The feeding tube was removed, and Terri was dead in a matter of days. Was that what Terri wanted? We will never know. What we do know is that Terri Schiavo would not have become a household name if she had signed an advance health-care directive.
If you are able to communicate with your doctors, then you are in charge of your medical decisions. But what happens when you are not able to communicate? If you have an advance health-care directive, then your hand-picked health-care agent has authority to make medical decisions for you. You can appoint your spouse, your child, your best friend, your life partner, or whoever you wish.
If you are incapacitated and hospitalized but don’t have an advance directive in place, you might think that your spouse or adult children would be first in line to make medical decisions on your behalf. You might be surprised. The law of some States requires a meeting of “interested parties” to arrive at a consensus of who should be your surrogate decision maker. Who are the interested parties? That’s a great question. It depends on your circumstances. It could include your spouse, your parents, your siblings, your caregivers, and list goes on. If there is strife in your family, it is impossible to say who will be in the room when some very important decisions are made for you.
An advance health-care directive is a simple way to avoid this mess. It will also afford you the opportunity to state your specific wishes regarding your health care, including how long you should be kept on life support once medical care can do nothing more than keep your heart beating. Talk with your loved ones and your estate planning professionals about how to make sure you don’t end up sharing Terri Schiavo’s fate. For more information about advance directives and other estate planning fundamentals, click here.