Living wills can aid loved ones

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, March 29, 2005

The recent controversy surrounding Terri Schiavo has caused many people to look at living wills.

According to Columbiana attorney Sanford Hatton, all adults (ages 19 and older) should put their wishes in writing to ensure those wishes will be granted in case of a tragic illness or accident.

Most people would like to shy away from the needed preparations, however.

&uot;Everybody knows they need a will, but nobody thinks they are going to die,&uot; Hatton said. &uot;Folks are ill-prepared to deal with those decisions.&uot;

The Schiavo case has caused people to talk about future plans, according to Hatton. Coincidentally, the Alabama State Bar made a special push for advanced planning two years ago.

Hatton said all adults need a valid power of attorney, will and advanced directive (i.e. living will).

* An advanced directive is a written instruction that an individual makes while mentally competent. It states how an individual would want healthcare decisions to be made if they become incapacitated or cannot express their wishes. The state recognizes two types of advanced directives: The Advanced Directive for Health Care and the Durable Power of Attorney.

A living will describes the kind of care an individual would want only if they have a terminal condition or are in a state of permanent unconsciousness, which includes a persistent vegetative state or deep coma.

&uot;Healthcare providers know what you do and do not want (with an advanced directive),&uot; Hatton said.

That directive can direct a physician to withhold or withdraw life-sustaining treatment or a feeding tube if the individual cannot speak on their behalf. A living will must be witnessed by two people, at least 19 years of age, who know the patient and are not related by blood or marriage. It does not need to be notarized.

* Power of attorney appoints a proxy to make healthcare decisions, in collaboration with a personal physician, if a person loses the ability to make decisions for themselves.

&uot;Someone can step in and take care of your business if you are incapacitated,&uot; Hatton said.

A proxy can tell the physician or the hospital what care they want in all types of healthcare decisions and not just those concerning life-sustaining treatment.

A power of attorney should be valid and well written, according to Hatton.

If a person has a living will and a Durable Power of Attorney, they should both be consistent.

While Schiavo was not in a terminal condition (i.e. a condition that would cause death in the near future), she was considered by many to be in a state of permanent unconsciousness (an incurable condition in which one loses the ability to think, speak and move purposefully, even though the heartbeat and breathing continue).

There is confusion on what Schiavo wanted, since she did not leave a living will. Her parents state she would want to live, while her husband said she would want to die.

&uot;No one knows what she wanted,&uot; Hatton said.

Hatton said it is not difficult to fill out the necessary paperwork.

&uot;They’re not complicated documents,&uot; he said. &uot;It should not be very costly.&uot;

While they do not have to be prepared by an attorney, Hatton encourages individuals to talk with an attorney, to make sure documents are complete and valid. Copies should also be given to relatives, a healthcare proxy and an alternative proxy. Copies should also be included in medical records and at the hospital where an individual is treated.

When a person makes their wishes known, it can benefit loved ones down the road.

&uot;When you know that person’s wishes, you know that’s what they want to do,&uot; Hatton said. &uot;It takes the pressure off the family.&uot;

Forms are available at most courthouses, hospitals, nursing homes, the Alabama Medicaid Agency and online at