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What happened to Terri Schiavo?


Question:  I have heard that I could be trapped on life support if I get in an accident and slip into a coma, like the lady in Florida who was recently in the news.  How can that be avoided?


Answer:  Yes, there have been a flurry of recent cases around the country in which people have been forced to remain on life support because they did not have adequate documents in place to prevent that from happening. 


Before the 1990s, Living Wills were commonly used to specify that an individual wished not to be stranded on life support.  However, as a result of liability concerns, some hospitals and doctors became reluctant to remove artificial life support under traditional Living Wills.  As a result, most state legislatures have passed laws requiring hospitals and doctors to honor documents called “Durable Powers of Attorney for Health Care”.  The laws even provide forms to be used.  But please note that each state has its own form, so one state’s form is not likely to work in another state.


Therefore, each of us should obtain a Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care naming an Agent to make critical medical decisions for us in the event that we can not make them for ourselves.  This simple document can be completed by itself, or as part of a comprehensive estate plan completed through a qualified attorney


Question:  That is very helpful.  Would the Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care also allow my Agent to deal with my property if I were in a coma?


Answer:  No, your Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care only covers medical issues.  In order to have an Agent to deal with your property if you are in a coma, or are otherwise legally incapacitated, you need a separate document called a “Durable Power of Attorney for Property”.  Again, most states have approved these documents and have even specified a form.  The form may be available online, and can be completed by itself or as part of your estate plan through an attorney.  Each one of us should have both of these forms.  With the advances in modern medical technology, the likelihood of being kept alive after a serious accident has dramatically increased, and so has the likelihood of being put on life support.


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