Case raises awareness of living wills, documents

Published 6:00 am Monday, March 28, 2005

Talk among family and friends about the Florida Terri Schiavocase has had a positive effect in Lincoln County, attorneyssay.

The case has prompted many people to make often agonizingdecisions on their own views about living wills and other legaldocuments drafted to preserve or transfer a person’s ability tomake their own decisions should they become incapacitated.

Area attorneys say that may be the one positive element toemerge from the Schiavo drama.

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“What it has done is made more people aware of what could happenwithout a well-drafted living will” or other legal documents, saidattorney Brady Kellems. “We’ve been getting an increase in thenumber of people wanting to see us about (avoiding a similarsituation), but what I’ve noticed more is an increase in awarenessabout living wills.”

Attorney Bill Boerner said people wishing to fully protectthemselves should arm themselves with up to four legal documents.He said a general, durable power of attorney and last will andtestament are necessities but a living will and a health care powerof attorney are optional and depend on people’s personalbeliefs.

The two optional documents are the ones of primary interest tothose watching the Schiavo case.

A living will legally establishes that when two doctors agree aperson has “no expectation of my regaining consciousness or a stateof health that is meaningful,” life-support systems may bewithdrawn.

A living will guarantees that a patient’s desire not to continueliving with no hope of recovery will be carried through, Boernersaid.

“That’s the whole purpose of that – to take it out of thefamily’s hands,” he said.

Families may agree to withdraw life support while the patient iscognizant but have second thoughts or misgivings later, Boernersaid.

“A living will resolves that question for each of us,” he said.”It removes any associated blame or guilt.”

Without a living will, he said, a spouse could authorize apatient’s removal from life support. However, in the case of apatient without a spouse, members of the immediate family would allhave to agree on that course of action.

“When I talk to a client now, they’re much more aware of livingwills and the need for them, if that is their personal choice,”Kellems said.

The Florida case centers around Schiavo, 41, who suffered braindamage in 1990, when her heart stopped briefly from a chemicalimbalance believed to have been caused by an eating disorder. Sincethat time, she has received nourishment through a feeding tube.

Her husband, Michael Schiavo, and her parents, Bob and MarySchindler, are disputing Michael Schiavo’s decision to remove thefeeding tube, which would kill his wife through starvation anddehydration. Michael Schiavo has maintained that his wife’s choicewas not to be sustained, a fact her parents dispute, but no livingwill exists.

The case has bounded from court to court and even into Congressas litigants seek a final determination on whether the feeding tubecan be removed.

A living will would have resolved the controversy much moreeasily, Kellems said. He cited the Lincoln County court district asan example.

“In my more than 24 years as an attorney, I have never seen aliving will contested in this district,” he said.

However, Kellems said there are instances in which a living willcould be contested – if only because those instances have neverbeen challenged in a court of law.

A living will, if not specifically drafted to be all-inclusive,generally only refers to the use of “life-sustaining mechanisms,”he said. Whether that terminology would be broad enough to includedevices such as Schiavo’s feeding tube could be challenged.

“A well-drafted living will should cover all possibilities,”Kellems said.

A health care power of attorney is similar to a living will butmuch broader in coverage, Boerner said.

“Some doctors would be more comfortable seeing a health carepower of attorney than a general power of attorney,” he said. “Itgives specific authority to make health care decisions.”

That authority, Boerner said, includes the removal oflife-support systems but is extended to include any and alldecisions about health care should patients become incapacitatedand unable to make decisions themselves.

Both living wills and health care powers of attorney are easy toobtain from attorneys and relatively inexpensive, the attorneyssaid.

Boerner said people can get a packet of all four documents forless than $500 from any attorney in town.