Why You Need A Living Will: To Protect Your Wishes and Your Family’s Sanity
By Dean I Weitzman, Esq. on November 10th, 2011
When 55-year-old Maryland resident Daniel Sanger suffered a heart attack this past July, it caused life-altering brain damage and began a sad legal battle that quickly pitted his wife against his mother and brother.
After the heart attack, he was unable to swallow solid food normally, which kept him from getting adequate nourishment, according to a news story from The Associated Press. He was put on a feeding tube, but it was later removed at his wife’s request, the story reported. His speech and mobility were also affected due to the heart attack, and he developed an infection from a bedsore.
His wife maintained that her husband had previously told her “many times before his heart attack he would not want to be kept alive by invasive means” if he were ever faced with a serious medical situation, according to the story. “’He said, ‘I definitely don’t want to live that way.’ He doesn’t want to live with the tubes.”
Sanger’s mother, however, argued otherwise, saying that he had previously explained his wishes to her and his doctor, telling them that he did want to live. His mother and brother fought for a temporary court order to have Sanger’s feeding tube reinserted, and then continued to fight for what they said were his wishes.
The case ended up late last month in a Frederick County, Md., circuit courtroom, where a judge was to hear arguments from both sides before deciding whether Sanger should or should not continue to be given nourishment through the tube to keep him alive.
We’ll never know how that would have proceeded. The emotion-filled scenario ended tragically last week when Sanger died hours before the hearing was to have taken place, according to a story in The Frederick News-Post.
Yet in the big scheme of things, this tragic family battle need not have happened. Had Sanger had a “living will” – a document that laid out his own wishes for his care if ever he would lose his ability to care for himself – then the family and doctors would have known exactly what to do to care for him, with no ambiguity.
That’s what we should all learn from this case so that something good can come out of it.
“This is a typical example of what can happen when someone doesn’t have a living will,” says Saul Langsam, an attorney with MyPhillyLawyer. “To avoid this situation, you should see a lawyer to draw one up to protect your family.”
In Pennsylvania, the living will – also called a Health Directive – specifically lays out the treatment wishes of an individual in the event they are unable to verbalize their wishes.
An attorney can prepare the document, which lists specific actions or non-actions to be taken on behalf of the individual in the event of a wide variety of medical scenarios, Langsam says.
“It requires the signer to overtly read each question and check off whether the individual would like any treating physicians to provide certain medical procedures and treatments in the event of a debilitating incident,” he says. “They check off whatever boxes they feel reflect their feelings and wishes,” such as if they do or don’t want medical measures to be taken if they suffer a heart attack, paralysis, seizures or other catastrophic medical conditions.
Another key part of the health directive is that the signer must designate a “health care adviser” who becomes the spokesperson for the signer if they are incapacitated and unable to speak for themselves, Langsam says. “It could be a relative, a friend, a neighbor or anyone. That’s purely a personal decision.”
One of the most famous cases involving a family fight over a patient and a feeding tube involved Terri Schiavo, a 41-year-old Florida woman who suffered brain damage after having a heart attack in 1990 that deprived her body of oxygen. Her husband fought to remove her from a feeding tube because she was in a vegetative state, but her parents argued she should remain on the feeding tube because she was still conscious. Eventually, after rounds of appeals and legal battles, Schiavo was removed from the tube and died in 2005.
The common theme in these family disputes is an absence of a written document by the patient expressing his or her wishes in such cases, Langsam says.
To prevent these kinds of disputes in the midst of such difficult times, a living will allow everyone involved to know what will happen in the event of serious illness or accident.
“You’re pairing people who have diametrically opposed interests,” he says. “Usually it’s the spouse who has the best interests of the patient at heart and they’re fighting other family members who are being unrealistic and who are pursuing a course of action which is not always in the best interests of the patient. You see that all the time.”
At the same time, individuals should also remember to prepare traditional wills to distribute their assets and belongings in the event of their death, Langsam says. “Living wills go hand in hand with traditional wills, which we encourage everyone to have.”
When you are ready to protect yourself and your family, go to a qualified and compassionate attorney who can draft the legal documents that will make these situations less stressful for everyone.
We here at MyPhillyLawyer would be honored to assist you with these documents, as well as with trusts, estates and other family related legal filings. We are here whenever you need us.
When Winning Matters Most, call MyPhillyLawyer.