Nine Years Later, Paul G. Smith
Lived Died to Regret Signing a Living Will
No one knows for sure what Paul G. Smith was thinking when he signed a living will in 2004, but in January 2013 his daughter Susan Rissman knew for sure that her father wanted food and water when he was in St. Vincent Hospital in Indianapolis, because she videotaped him asking for them.
However, the doctor in charge at the hospital refused to reinstate Smith’s ventilator and feeding tubes, and his decision was backed by the court, because Smith had signed a living will nine years earlier that declared he did not want to be kept alive by artificial means.
When Paul Smith changed his mind regarding his living will, it was too late, so he died uncomfortably despite the best efforts of Ms. Rissman to ease the suffering of her father, who still had his mental capacities, along with his physical feelings.
The legal and moral issues of this tragic situation can be debated endlessly, along with how much longer Mr. Smith would have lived had he remained connected to life-support machines. What cannot be debated is the fact that Smith’s decision to sign a living will gave away his right to decide his final fate despite his desire and ability to do so.
All of the parties involved in this case, on both sides of the issue, acted honestly, legally, and with Mr. Smith’s best interest in mind, so no blame should be assigned to any one of them for the circumstances, because they were all in a situation none of them wanted. If a finger of blame needs to be be pointed, it should be pointed at the entire concept of a living will.
Buyer Beware!When you sign the dotted line of a living will you are potentially signing your away your legal right of self-determination in your final moments, without knowing when or where or under what circumstances that decision needs to be made.
The mere concept of a living will is somewhat of a non-sequitur, because the definition of a will is that it is a declaration of your intentions about what should happen to your estate after you have died. A will is not legally binding until a probate court declares — after a death — that it was properly executed, so no aspect of it is living or active prior to that ruling.
The only way to add the notion of "living" to a will would be to review it frequently to ensure it expresses the feelings and intentions you are living with at that moment. But even frequent reviews of a living will cannot account for how you will feel and think if you suddenly become aware of the fact that you have entered the final stage of life.
If you have created a Health Care Power of Attorney as part of your estate plan, and chosen your designated medical decision-maker wisely, your final moments should be as comfortable and comforting as possible.
When you enter the unknown, you encounter unknown emotions, so there really is no template for properly preparing for that moment, especially a check-the-appropriate-box one-size-fits-all document you bought from a website for $20. The best you can do at that point is to surround yourself with your loved ones and trusted advisers and take comfort in knowing you have properly prepared your family and heirs for what comes next.