What They Are, Why You Need Them, and Remembering Terri Schiavo

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Living Wills and Health Care Powers of Attorney are commonly referred to as “advanced directives” because they give health care providers and family members direction for your medical treatment and end of life care should you be unable to communicate your wishes.

Despite its name, a Living Will is actually not a will at all; it is a legal document used to set forth your wishes regarding the use or non-use of artificial life-sustaining support in the event that you become incapacitated, terminally ill, or permanently unconscious. A Living Will only becomes effective when you cannot communicate your wishes and are permanently unconscious or terminally ill. A Living Will can be changed or revoked only by you and trumps a Health Care Power of attorney under Ohio Law.

A Health Care Power of Attorney is a legal document that authorizes another person (your agent) to obtain your health information and to make health care decisions for you that are consistent with your wishes. This document gives your agent access to your medical history and diagnosis to assist you in making informed decisions regarding your care. In the event that you are deemed terminally ill or permanently incapacitated by two physicians, your agent will be the one to order the withdrawal or continuation of life-sustaining treatment or artificially or technologically supplied nutrition or hydration, whichever is consistent with your wishes.

While it is certainly common to see elderly individuals with these documents, it makes just as much sense to execute these documents earlier in life.

In 1990, 26 year old Terri Schiavo suffered cardiac arrest while at her home in St. Petersburg, Florida. She was resuscitated but had suffered massive brain damage due to lack of oxygen to her brain and was left comatose. After months without improvement, she was diagnosed as being in a permanent vegetative state. Doctors attempted speech and physical therapy hoping to return her to responsiveness for years without success. Terri did not have a living will, which resulted in a heart breaking 10 year legal battle between Terri’s husband, who insisted she would not have wanted to be on artificial life sustaining treatment, and her parents, who believed she was conscious and could be brought back to them.

Having advanced directives in place is a kindness to your loved ones in the unforeseen event of tragedy. An experienced attorney at The Law Offices of Saia & Piatt, Inc. can assist you with executing these documents.