By: Barry E. Haimo, Esq.
February 4, 2016
What Happens If There Is No Living Will?
I’ve written before about the importance of designating a health care surrogate – someone you choose to make important medical decisions for you in the event that you become incapacitated due to injury, illness, or advanced age. But how does this person know how you would have wanted them to act?
Generally speaking, that’s where a living will comes in. This is the legal document you use to clarify which types of medical treatment you want to receive in certain situations – and which ones you don’t. For example, if you do not want your life to be artificially prolonged through the use of machines, your living will is where you let these wishes be known.
But what if you neglect to create a living will?
Problems That Can Arise When You Don’t Create a Living Will
Most of you are probably familiar – at least to some extent – with the sad story of Terri Schiavo. From 1990 through 2005, she was artificially kept alive in a persistent vegetative state while her loved ones waged a battle over what was to be done with her.
Terri’s husband argued that she should be taken off machines because she told him that was what she wanted. Her parents argued the opposite – that Terri would not have wanted that. But there was no legal way to know for sure because Terri never created a living will. So both sides fought a 15-year legal battle to determine whether she would live or die.
Obviously, hers was an extreme situation, but it is not unique. Here are some things that can happen if you don’t have a living will.
Doctors are required to keep you artificially alive. In order to take artificial life support away, the law demands evidence that is clear and convincing. Generally, this means a living will stating that you do not want artificial life support used to keep you alive. Even if you verbally tell people that life support is not what you want, this may not be enough.
You may be given treatment that goes against your beliefs. While life support for many people is a very individual decision, for others, it is a matter of religion or faith. Perhaps your beliefs see life support as some kind of violation or act against nature. Being kept artificially alive may even be offensive to you, but without clear proof that you wouldn’t have wanted it, doctors’ hands are tied.
There will be no way to differentiate treatment. Some people want to use every possible method to keep themselves alive. Other people may be okay with certain types of treatment, but not other types of treatments. A living will is where you can spell out exactly what’s okay and what isn’t. Without one, you have no voice. And this can go both ways. Let’s say you’re okay with minor life sustaining treatment, but when talking to family members, you generalize and tell them you never want to live “hooked up to machines.” In some cases, their combined statements may be enough to get doctors to completely remove life support.
Loved ones may fight. Without a straightforward record of what you want, family members and other loved ones are left to not only make such a difficult decision of deciding for you. What do they think you would have wanted? Did you tell your husband something that is at odds with the beliefs of your parents, which may have been the case with Terri Shiavo? With the strong emotions flying around, disagreements and arguments can come up, and may even lead to a prolonged legal battle. This is something you definitely don’t want the people you care about to have to go through.
When there is no living will, you essentially lose your voice in your end of life care. Don’t put yourself or your loved ones through this. Clearly articulate your wishes in a living will, then sit down and talk about those wishes with everyone you care about. This is the only true way to make sure you get a say in what happens to you once you are no longer able to make decisions.
Barry E. Haimo, Esq.
Strategic Planning With Purpose
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