Schiavo Case: A Reminder of Why Living Wills Are Crucial

Americans are flooding attorneys and nonprofit organizations with requests for living wills, spurred on by the legal battle in Florida over the life of Terri Schiavo, according to an article in USA Today.

Like three-quarters of Americans, Ms. Schiavo had no living will when, at age 26, a heart attack cut off oxygen to her brain. Now 39, she has been in what doctors are calling a persistent vegetative state since 1990. Schiavo is not comatose but has not spoken in 13 years, and how much she is aware of is a matter of bitter dispute between her husband and her parents.

Ms. Schiavo's feeding tube had been removed October 15, after her husband won court permission to allow her to die. But doctors, supported by Ms. Schiavo's parents, reinserted the tube a week later, acting on an extraordinary order by Florida governor Jeb Bush. Gov. Bush and the Florida legislature pushed through a law that, for now at least, has negated 10 years of court decisions by forcing doctors to treat Ms. Schiavo.

The case is a tragic reminder of the importance of living wills, in which individuals can communicate -- in writing -- their end-of-life wishes if they are unable to do so themselves. In Ms. Schiavo's case, a living will could have made all the difference.

As a result, attorneys and nonprofit groups that deal with end-of-life issues are witnessing a surge of interest in living wills. Elder law attorneys are seeing increased awareness of the issue, says William Browning, an Ohio elder law attorney who is president of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys. "More of my clients are referencing the case in Florida," Browning says.

The National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization, a nonprofit that offers free living wills and medical powers of attorney for all 50 states, reports that phone calls to its national hotline, 800-989-9455, have tripled. Meanwhile, Aging with Dignity a nonprofit group that sells a document allowing people to specify end-of-life wishes, says calls are 10 times higher than normal.

Of equal importance to living wills are health care proxies or health care powers of attorney because they appoint a person to make these decisions for you if you cannot. But you need to have a living will or medical directive in order to convey your wishes to your health care agent. It's also important to talk about your wishes and values with your agent. To draw up a living will and other crucial estate planning tools, contact an elder law attorney in your area.

Learn more about living wills and other medical directives.