At Epiphany Law, estate planning is about “peace of mind.” Yes, it is important to ensure that your “stuff” goes where you want it to go and that you pay the minimum amount to Uncle Sam. But peace of mind also means that you have planned for incapacity and determined who will take care of you if you cannot do so.
The death of Terri Schiavo ten years ago was widely publicized at the time, but today there is a whole new generation of adults who may not appreciate the lessons taught by her unfortunate story. At the age of 27, Terri Schiavo suffered a cardiac arrest. She was resuscitated, but was diagnosed as being in a persistent vegetative state. A feud ensued between her husband and her parents as to whether to remove Mrs. Schiavo from life support. Her husband insisted Terri would not want to be kept alive under the circumstances, but her parents vehemently disagreed. Mrs. Schiavo remained on life support as her husband and parents battled for 15 years in the court system through 5 federal lawsuits and 14 appeals. Ultimately, the federal court system sided with Ms. Schiavo’s husband, and her feeding tube was removed.
In yesterday’s blog, we covered the importance of a power of attorney for your financial affairs. Today, we talk about a power of attorney in the context of YOU—your body and your health. Every good estate plan must include a Power of Attorney for health care decisions. Quite simply, in such a document, you name an agent to make decisions for you about your health and medical care if you are unable to. This document should include important considerations such as withholding life support, decisions while you are pregnant, and placing you in a nursing home. Who you should name is obviously a personal decision. Consider someone local in the event of an accident or emergency, who can make decisions under pressure, and can act based on your wishes, not their own.
After you determine who will act on your behalf, the other equally important part of the equation is telling your agent what those decisions should be. The actions of your agent will have real “life and death” implications—for you and for them. If you don’t clearly articulate your wishes and desires, they will make decisions based on their own values, which might not line up with yours. A clear statement of your intentions about life support, for example, can bring a great deal of peace to a tough choice.
Now that you have the pieces, let’s look back at Schiavo story. Terri had taken the first step and designated her husband as her Power of Attorney, giving him the ability to make decisions for her. She did not, however, have a Living Will, and the courts were left to figure out what she wanted, presented through the eyes of her parents and husband. A clear statement of her intentions would have probably stopped the fight before it started.
“Stuff” is important, and having a plan in place ensures accumulated wealth will pass down to the next generation. Health care documents are arguably the most essential piece of the plan. If you don’t have a plan yet, you should. At a minimum, you should name an agent and let them know how you feel about your medical decisions. If you don’t, a court will do it for you.
Epiphany Law Estate Planning Team