The Terri Schiavo case is an emotionally-charged example of the disputes that may arise when an individual is in a physical condition from which recovery is not expected, and the individual has not clearly articulated his or her intentions regarding their medical treatment under those circumstances. Although in the past this issue has been considered a problem for the elderly, Mrs. Schiavo's case has made it clear that this difficult issue is relevant to persons of all ages. For this reason, one result of Mrs. Schiavo's situation is that many people are now eager to learn more about living wills.
A living will is a document in which an individual sets out in writing his or her wishes concerning whether medical or life sustaining efforts should be terminated if it appears that those efforts will not result in a medical recovery. The reason people consider signing a living will is that they may not be physically able to communicate their intentions when these circumstances arise. When an individual signs a living will, there is at least one piece of clear, written evidence concerning how the individual wishes to be cared for physically in situations where a medical recovery is not expected.
Most states have laws regarding living wills, and it is not uncommon for such laws to permit different forms of living wills. In Florida, for example, the living will statute provides a suggested form, but does not prohibit other forms from being used. The Commission on Aging With Dignity, for example, has developed a so-called "Five Wishes" living will form, which is more lengthy than Florida's suggested form and is written in plain English.
The suggested living will form in Florida permits the person signing the form to declare whether "life-prolonging procedures" should be withheld or withdrawn where the person has a "terminal condition," is in a "persistent vegetative state" or is in an "end stage condition." Each of these terms is defined under Florida law. "Life prolonging procedures" is defined as any medical procedure, treatment or intervention, including artificially provided sustenance and hydration (e.g., food and water by tube feeding), which sustains, restores or supplant a spontaneous vital function. However, life-prolonging procedures do not include the administration of pain medication or other procedures that provide comfort.
Perhaps the most important function of a living will is to identify a family member or other trusted "designee" who can make decisions on behalf of the person who has signed the living will in accordance with the terms of the document. Naming such a designee, and communicating to them your intentions about the matters addressed by a living will, make it more likely that your wishes will be honored.
If you would like to sign a living will, you should contact a lawyer who is familiar with these documents and how they may be used in particular situations.
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