For twenty years I have offered legal advice to clients regarding the importance of writing a simple will, a health care directive, and a durable power of attorney before a crisis arises. It wasn't until my own parents began experiencing health problems that I realized the true wisdom of my own words.
Both of my parents were hospitalized several times during the last few years. Each time, they were asked whether they had an "advanced directive." Luckily, I had assisted them with this many years ago. After discussing their wishes regarding distribution of their property, nursing home care, and life-prolonging measures such as artificial nutrition and hydration, I designed a straightforward estate plan including the following:
- Living Wills (Powers of Attorney for Health Care)
- Simple Wills
- Durable Powers of Attorney
- Beneficiary Deed
Like many of my clients, my parents were crystal clear about their feelings regarding these issues and were wise enough to express those feelings in a legal document. These pieces of paper may seem insignificant, but they constitute the "clear and convincing evidence" of my parents' intent that the courts require in order for their wishes to be carried out.
Each time they were asked to do so, my parents obediently (and rather proudly) produced their original health care directives for copying. We always put them back in their refrigerator drawer for safekeeping afterwards. (In case of a fire, the papers will probably survive. Safe deposit boxes and fire-proof safes work great if you have one, but if not a fridge is a good alternative. I recommended a safe deposit box to my parents, but it's actually easier to get at the papers if you just reach behind the lettuce!)
Nearly everyone I have talked to feels strongly about whether they would want treatment which might prolong the dying process. Many are adamant that they do not want to be kept alive on a ventilator or with artificially-supplied food and water. However, most clients also admit that they have not taken the crucial next step -- putting their wishes in writing. I cannot count the number of times a client has dashed into our office requesting that we prepare a legal document immediately, because they (or a parent, grandparent, aunt, etc.) is having surgery, going into a nursing home, or dying. The added stress this causes is evident on their faces.
My advice is that you do not put yourself or your family members in that position. Instead, take the time to sit down and think about what you want without the pressure. Then speak to an attorney who will advise you of the best way to accomplish your goal. We, like many attorneys, would be happy to discuss the procedure and costs.