Ensuring the Expected After the Unexpected: Living Wills and Durable Power of Attorneys

Every morning we wake up and expect the usual; a hot cup of coffee, drizzle outside and traffic on I-90. What we don’t expect is spilling the coffee, forgetting the umbrella and getting t-boned when trying to merge. In the blink of an eye, our world can suddenly go dark. We don’t expect it to, but there is always a chance that it can. Although we cannot control what destiny sends our way, there is a way to have complete control over what happens after the unexpected happens. How? By outlining our wishes in various legal documents beforehand, two vital ones being a Living Will and a Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care.

A Living Will, also called a Health Care Directive, is a document that outlines your wishes regarding whether or not you want to have life-sustaining medical treatment withdrawn or withheld in the event of a terminal condition that leaves you unable to decide or speak for yourself. The Living Will takes effect when provided to your attending physician, at which time he or she then determines whether you have a terminal condition or are in a persistent vegetative state. In the end, this document lets you decide if you want to be disconnected from life support or to continue with life support indefinitely.

Similar to a Living Will, a Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care is a legal document that addresses health care decisions if you become incapacitated. However, unlike a Living Will, this document appoints a person(s) to make health care decisions on your behalf if you become unable to make decisions because of an injury, illness or mental impairment. A few common decisions that a Durable Power of Attorney makes is the admittance or discharge from hospitals and nursing homes, as well as what treatments should be carried out.

Everyone should have these documents. If you are injured and unable to speak for yourself, these documents not only state what you want, but also who will make important decisions for you. You might recall a case that went to the Supreme Court in 1990. In 1983, a 25-year-old woman was injured in an automobile accident that left her in a coma connected to life support. Her Doctors thought she might live for another 30 years in this state. Upon hearing this diagnosis, the woman’s parents told the Doctors that their daughter would not want to live in a vegetative state and requested that she be removed from life support. The Doctors, however, refused and a legal tug-of-war ensued. After several years, the Court ultimately determined that the parents’ wishes should be followed. Had there been a Living Will, her wishes would have been known. Had there been a Durable Power of Attorney, her parents would have had the authority to make her health care decisions. If either document had been in place at the time of the accident, a long-winded courtroom battle would have been avoided.

Most likely you’ll get your expected, perhaps even better than the expected; a frothy cappuccino, sunshine and a fast commute. But just in case you don’t one morning, please make sure you have a Living Will or a Durable Power of Attorney in place so that your loved ones can fulfill your expected.