It's hard to believe that twenty years have passed since Michael Schiavo filed a petition to have his wife's life support removed. In many ways, we are still no closer to solving these issues of life and death.
In 1990, a 26-year-old woman sustained a heart attack as a result of an eating disorder. Although she was ultimately resuscitated by paramedics, it was not before serious brain damage occurred due to a lack of oxygen. She lapsed into a coma from which she never recovered. This young woman was Terri Schiavo. Many remember Ms. Schiavo’s situation as the seminal event that would spark a national debate between friends and family: what you would want to happen if you were in a persistent vegetative state?
A family battle was waged for the next ten years while Ms. Schiavo was artificially kept alive. Her parents held onto hope that she could recover while her husband Michael maintained that there was no hope of recovery and she would not want to live connected to machines. Why was the family placed in such an untenable position? Ms. Schiavo had not signed a simple legal document that would have provided clear instructions as to what her wishes were: a Living Will. This left Ms. Schiavo’s husband with no choice but to involve the court; a public forum to decide their private, painful situation.
In 1998, a petition was filed that asked the judge to sign an order for Ms. Schiavo’s life support to be removed to allow her to die. Her parents opposed this petition which then led to an unprecedented chain of legal events regarding end-of-life decisions and the right to die with dignity. While the court ruled in favor of Michael’s petition –14 appeals to Florida’s higher courts, political intervention by Florida’s governor, Jeb Bush and President George W. Bush, four appeals in the U.S. Supreme Court and even a Congressional inquiry followed. Following the Supreme Court’s decision, Ms. Schiavo dies naturally, passing away on March 31, 2005 – 15 years after her heart stopped. An autopsy ultimately revealed that she had suffered catastrophic, irreversible brain damage.
Obviously, I’m relating this cautionary tale to point out the importance of creating a Living Will as part of your estate plan. This is a document that specifically states your wishes should you ever suffer from a terminal condition or fall into a permanent vegetative state. This should be drafted as a companion to your HIPAA Authorization and your medical power attorney that appoints loved ones to act when you can’t (although they cannot overrule your Living Will) A medical power of attorney will also lay out which medical treatments you elect to either receive or refuse. This is an integral part of our client-first approach to estate planning. There is no “one size fits all” when it comes to estate planning with our firm. I have been in practice for 25 years and my firm has significant experience in the area of designing estate planning for the individual circumstances of each of our clients. Call us at 757.259.0707 or follow this link to schedule a free complimentary consultation to find out what works best for you.