Health Care Decisions

In the area of health care decision-making, you may recall the Karen Ann Quinlan case. In 1979, the New Jersey Supreme Court granted permission to her family to disconnect Karen’s respirator, which her doctors believed was prolonging her life in a vegetative state. The case led to the enactment by various states of Natural Death Act Declarations (i.e., living wills).

A living will generally allows you to state your preferences, prior to incompetency, regarding the giving or withholding of life-sustaining medical treatment. In most states, you must have a “terminal condition,” be in a “persistent vegetative state,” or be “permanently unconscious” before life-support can be withdrawn. The definition of these terms and the medical conditions covered may vary from state to state.

A health care proxy allows you to appoint an agent to make health care decisions on your behalf in the event of incapacity. These medical decisions are not limited to those regarding artificial life-support.

Advance directives by durable power of attorney, living will, or health care proxy are usually inexpensive and simple to implement; they should be considered essential estate planning tools for all individuals, regardless of age. In the absence of such documents, court intervention involving a great deal of time, expense, and possible stress to your family, may be necessary to carry out your legal, financial, and health care wishes at precisely the moment when timeliness and ease of action are of the greatest importance.

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