Terri Schiavo was just 26 years old when she had a heart attack as a result of a potassium imbalance likely brought on by extreme dieting. Although resuscitated, her brain was without oxygen for more than 5 minutes. This lack of oxygen caused massive brain damage and Terri was left in a persistent vegetative state. Unbelievably, this incident occurred twenty-five years ago and created a lengthy legal battle between her husband—who wanted her feeding tube removed—and Terri’s parents—who wanted her kept alive. Seven years and 14 appeals later, Schiavo's feeding tube was disconnected, and she died in 2005.
A big issue in this fight was that those closest to her testified she never would’ve wanted to be kept alive in a vegetative state, but Schiavo hadn’t signed a living will. Therefore, if you fail to have the legal documents necessary to express those intentions, no one will know what they are. Without leaving your written wishes, you take important decisions out of the hands of your family. It is very important to have these documents for your own peace of mind, as well as that of your family.
End-of-life directives are just one of the legal documents that are needed to protect us. Wills and powers of attorney (financial and medical) are crucial for sound estate planning. A financial power of attorney, allows another individual, like a spouse or trusted friend, to take care of your financial affairs in the event that you become incapacitated, which is particularly useful as you get older.
A medical power of attorney is like a living will, but it details more than deathbed concerns. It also allows your trusted agent to be given your private medical information and to decide health care issues for you if you’re incapacitated.
Wills are extremely important, especially for those with children. They let you name a guardian for your children, if you and your partner pass away. This step will prevent the courts from deciding who should care for your children or a dispute by relatives over guardianship. In some states, a will is not required, but another legal document specified by state law will suffice.
Even unmarried people without any kids should have a will. If not, state intestacy laws will dictate how your property will pass to your heirs. If you die without a will, the state will distribute your assets to your next of kin. This could be someone you don’t really like or whom you’ve never met.
Everyone has heirs. Even if you think you don’t have anyone, there’s likely a cousin out there somewhere, and the intestacy statute will try to find the next of kin. If you have a properly prepared will, you can leave funds to charity, and make sure that the funds go where you want them to go—instead of to some distant relative with whom you have absolutely no relationship.
This issue isn’t pleasant, but preparing for disability and death with legal documents provides undeniable protection, as well as peace of mind for you and your family.
Reference: Harrisburg Magazine (December 2016) “Protect Yourself”