Recent Medical Discoveries May Affect Your Living Will

Most of my estate planning clients sign a Living Will to avoid the type of circumstances Terri Schiavo and her family were subjected to after she suffered a heart attack and brain damage that left her in a permanent vegetative state. For 15 years during extensive state and federal court battles between family members, Terri Schiavo was kept alive by means of a feeding tube.

A Living Will is your end-of-life directions to your treating physicians indicating that under certain circumstances you do not want “life-prolonging procedures” such as nutrition and hydration administered by invasive procedures, respirators, or any other mechanical devices designed to assist the functioning of organs. A Living Will defines those circumstances as one in which your attending physician determines that there can be no recovery from a terminal or vegetative condition and that either your death is imminent or you can no longer experience a meaningful life.

Recently, nationally renowned physician Dr. Sanjay Gupta was on National Public Radio where he discussed interviewing patients who had received a diagnosis of “permanent vegetative state” (PVS) and then recovered. A couple of months ago I worked with a new client who has fully recovered after being in a coma (but not in a PVS) for more than a month. Although I remain convinced that a Living Will is an essential component of any estate plan I now believe a Living Will should include additional patient protections that apply when someone is diagnosed as being in a vegetative condition. Therefore, I have now revised the language in the Living Wills I prepare for my clients. If you would like to learn more about this I would be happy to discuss the details with you. Although it appears PVS has not yet become an issue for other estate planning attorneys I suspect this will change as the public becomes aware of research work by Dr. Gupta and others.

Permanent Vegetative State:

A condition in which there is no awareness of the self or the surroundings though the patient appears at times to be awake. Personality, memory, purposive action, social interaction, sentience, thought, and even emotional states are gone. Only vegetative functions and reflexes persist.

Robert Rakestraw, professor,
Bethel Seminary, MN.