When a family member becomes permanently incapacitated, it can be one of the most emotional and difficult decision-making periods for a grieving family. If family members disagree about what a terminally ill and permanently unconscious patient would have wanted, the result can be years of gut-wrenching intra-family fighting.
Terri Schiavo entered a persistent vegetative state in 1990, when she was age 26. Her family could not agree on whether she would have wanted to be kept alive artificially by machines. It took 15 years and many public legal battles before she passed away. Fortunately, some basic advanced planning can remove uncertainty about your end-of-life wishes and prevent this type of family strife.
Two relatively simple legal documents–a living will and a durable power of attorney for health care are invaluable. The first expresses your wishes in the event of permanent unconsciousness, and the second appoints a healthcare agent (typically a spouse or close family member) to tell your doctors about your medical wishes in the event you cannot do so.
As an Air Force JAG preparing estate plans for deploying servicemembers and families, I prepared hundreds advanced medical directives where my clients expressed their wishes not to have their lives artificially prolonged in the event of permanent unconsciousness. Some requests were specifically tailored to individual medical needs, a desire to be seen by a certain physician, etc. Interestingly, in years of practice, I don’t recall a single client asking to be artificially kept alive if they entered a persistent vegetative state, though that is certainly a desire that could be expressed through a living will and durable power of attorney for health care.
The State of Illinois has statutory short forms for both the living will and the durable power of attorney for health care (thanks to Chicago-Kent College of Law and the State of Illinois for the links). Both short forms should be recognized in Illinois if prepared properly. Consult an attorney in your state to prepare advanced medical directives that comply with your laws.