National Healthcare Decision Day: Talk about Your Living Will

Sometimes talking about end of life issues and living wills can be uncomfortable. Sometimes we are challenged with how to broach the topic. Too often, we think about these matters only after watching someone else go through losing a loved one or through a medical crisis, and even then, bringing up your end-of-life wishes can be too raw, too fresh, too close to recent grief. But a particular date gives you a reason to talk about it. April 16 is National Healthcare Decision Day. This day gives you that perfect reason to talk about your living will.

Living Will Advanced Directive

What is a Living Will?

Everyone needs a few specific documents as part of the healthcare side of your estate plan. One of these is a living will. Your living will specifies in advance (thus, it is also called an advanced directive) what healthcare strategies you want used if you're unable to communicate your desires and you're suffering an end-stage or a terminal condition or if you're in a persistent vegetative state. This advanced planning eases the burden on loved ones who must make a decision during a difficult time.

Living wills are ideal for individuals who want to receive life-prolonging treatments, who do not want to receive this type of care, or who have specific wishes regarding common treatments in serious medical scenarios. In other words, everyone needs one.

The Terri Schiavo Case

Many people remember Terri Schiavo. In 1990, when she was only 26 years old, Mrs. Schiavo collapsed. When found, she was resuscitated, and her medical team inserted a feeding tube and provided ventilation with a breathing machine. For a year, treatment was sought. For a year, her medical team and husband tried to bring Terri back. But in early 1991, two different doctors determined that Terri was in a persistent vegetative state.

Treatment continued, but in 1998, determining that there was no longer hope for Terri's recovery, her husband made the difficult decision to remove Terri's feeding tube and petitioned the court. He had to seek the court's involvement because Terri had no living will. Terri's parents disagreed with her husband, and they opposed his motion.

The Florida Supreme Court had previously held that persons have the right to decide to choose or to refuse treatment. But Terri had not made that choice in advance of its need. She had no living will. Because her family disagreed with each other, this was decided by the court system.

For the next seven years, Terri's husband and her parents fought fierce court battles with appeals and lawsuits and motions in Florida and federal courts. In 2005, after involvement with courts and Congress and even the president, Terri's feeding tube was removed. She died on March 31, 2005.

The issue is not about whether Terri's husband or her parents were correct. The issue is that if Terri had a living will, her end of life would have been according to her wishes. Terri surely did not foresee collapsing at age 26 and lapsing into a comatose state. But that is what happened. By putting your wishes in place in your healthcare documents, you can protect your family from the complications of trying to decide and agree what you would have wanted.

Putting Your Plan in Place with a Living Will

April 16 is National Healthcare Decision Day. So blame the calendar. Call your family, and talk about it. (And don't worry if you read this after the actual day; any day is a good day to start your plan.) As important, though, is making sure you have your decisions written, signed, witnessed, and available for those who need the information. An attorney can help you with that.

Visit this page to learn more about your healthcare part of your estate plan. And to talk about your personal plan call an estate planning attorney to discuss your concerns and help you develop a plan that puts your wishes in place, giving you and your family some peace of mind.