Why everyone needs to have "End of Life" documents

Many people have heard of a Living Will but most have never thought about it for themselves or taken the time to have one prepared. Even fewer have heard of a Health Care Proxy or know what it is. One poll found that among baby boomers less than 36 percent had completed one of these documents. Most in this group report that since they are young and healthy they do not think about or prepare for death. Among younger individuals the number who have completed such documents is even lower.
With recent cases in the news such as Terry Schiavo and more recently Marlise Munoz, it is painfully apparent that life is unpredictable and even the very young are sometimes faced with these difficult decisions. What is obvious from both cases is that when we don't prepare for these decisions our loved ones may be forced to battle the state and complete strangers for the right to make decisions about end of life care. It doesn't have to be that way though.

No legal document can completely protect us from the attempts of others to intrude upon these very personal decisions but having our wishes documented in black and white will usually make it much easier for our family and doctors to ensure that our wishes are respected. Fortunately it doesn't take much time or any money to prepare the documents you will need.

There are two important documents that everyone should have so that they are prepared for the unexpected. They are the Living Will and the Health Care Proxy. Both of these documents can be downloaded through the links below along with a set of instructions to help you fill them out. Both documents are important, but the Health Care Proxy which people are less familiar with is actually the more important of the two.

The Living Will is a document used to outline your prefernces should you be incapacitated and unable to make decisions about important health care issues such as cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), and life support measures like mechanical respirators, dialysis, feeding tubes and any other treatment about which you would like to make your wishes clear. You can also detail in what circumstances you might want things to be done or not done. For example you may want to be on a ventilator if you were suffering from a condition that was reversible but not if you had a terminal disease like end stage cancer.

The Health Care Proxy is a simpler document to complete but probably the more important of the two. As useful as the Living Will can be in these situations its usefulness is limited by the great variety of circumstances which surround end of life. We can not possibly anticipate every situation. In addition, no matter how carefully we prepare our Living Will, it will be open to a certain amount of interpretation just like all legal documents. For this reason we need to designate someone to interpret our Living Will and to provide guidance for those situations which the Living WIll does not cover. This is what the Health Care Proxy does. It gives you the chance to legally assign someone to make these decisions for you in a situation where you are not able to make them for yourself.

Preparing these documents is only part of the process. Its just as important to discuss your wishes with your family and give copies of the documents to the person who is your designated Health Care Proxy and also to your doctor.

The documents provided here are vaild in NY State. If you live in another state you may want to check local regulations. Each state usually makes similar documents available through their own websites. While a lawyer may be able to help you anticipate situations you may not anticipate on your own it is by no means necessary to hire a lawyer to complete these documents. Even if you intend at some point to involve your lawyer you should fill out the documents listed here ahead of time. This can serve as a worksheet when you finally meet with a lawyer and they will also be fully enforceable legal documents should you need them before you get around to seeing a lawyer.


Michael Melgar

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