Most of us have heard of healthcare directives. Popularly referred to as “living wills,” these documents lay out highly personal choices regarding end-of-life care. They have been portrayed in popular media, especially through cases where the absence of a directive is notable – those involving family quarrels over whether to maintain life support for an incapacitated loved one. The relatively recent case of Terri Schiavo comes straight to mind for many.
In this column, I will describe healthcare directives in broad strokes and make a case that every individual should draft one.
In Georgia, the document is legally referred to as an advance directive for healthcare. It has two primary functions: First, it designates one person (a “healthcare agent”) who, as against all the world, will relate healthcare decisions to your doctors when you cannot. Second, the directive lays out your answers to some of the more difficult among such decisions. Should, for example, doctors keep you on a ventilator if you are “brain dead?” Should you be given CPR if you have incurable cancer and your heart stops?
Healthcare directives have the backing of Georgia law, which both requires your healthcare agent to honor your choices and requires doctors to obey your agent every bit as much as they would you.
Why is a healthcare directive necessary? Because many – indeed most – of us will depart this life in a fashion that is other than sudden and painless. When we have an incurable disease, are injured, or are in a non-responsive coma, the primary role of the healthcare directive is not to bind our loved ones to our philosophical choices but to free them from having to make those choices themselves. You can be assured that the main, if not the only, question in your family’s minds at such a time will be “what would Dad (or Mom or Grandpa, etc.) want?” And the best way to resolve that question is, of course, to tell them in advance.
End-of-life questions are extremely difficult and depend upon highly personalized preferences. Literally, I have clients who could share the same church pew and vote for the same politicians but have dramatically differing schemes in their healthcare directives.
All of which only goes to underscore the point: nobody should be without a Georgia advance directive for healthcare. For the do-it-yourselfers, forms are available online, at many healthcare facilities, and certainly through an estate planning attorney. Naturally, attorneys and medical professionals can also be of assistance in completing your own healthcare directive.
The State Bar of Georgia has a form healthcare directive available for download here.