By: John W. Callinan, certified elder law attorney, serving Monmouth, Ocean, and Middlesex Counties, New Jersey, in the areas of Guardianship, Medicaid planning, powers of attorney, living wills, last wills and testaments, and estate administration
I recently read an article about a lawyer inMissouriwho was charged with murdering her father. The lawyer/daughter was described as an attorney “who specializes in end-of-life issues.” Personally, I have no idea what that means. Specializing in end-of-life issues seems like an incredibly narrow practice area. The article also said that the lawyer had recently filed for bankruptcy, which made her specialty sound a bit more understandable to me. (In other words, there is no such specialty of the law.)
At any rate, the lawyer was charged with murdering her father and the father’s girlfriend. The daughter allegedly shot her father and his girlfriend, killing the girlfriend immediately and critically wounding her father. The shooting occurred on a Saturday.
At the hospital, the daughter (who is also an end-of-life specialist lawyer) presented a health care power of attorney naming herself as her father’s power of attorney. By Wednesday, the daughter instructed the hospital to remove her father from life support systems, and he died.
The authorities allege that the daughter forged her father’s signature to the health care power of attorney and used the forged document to, essentially, finish her father off.
As I read this story, I could see future clients sitting in front of me as we discussed a living will for them telling me that they didn’t want such a document because they feared someone would kill them. Unfortunately, stories such as the lawyer-daughter-alleged murder make good stories, but reality is—in the vast, vast majority of cases—nothing like that story.
While many of my clients are willing to permit me to draft a living will for them, I often get pushback from clients when I ask if they want to donate their eyes or organs in the event of their death. “No,” the client will say, “I heard that they let you die if you’re an organ donor.”
So, when it comes to living wills, there is definitely a level of fear in many people. People who believe that someone is going to kill them because of what they have said in their living wills.
I am frequently appointed by the court to be the guardian for a person who never signed a power of attorney or living will and who needs someone to make decisions for him because he can no longer make decisions for himself. For instance, a man may be in a hospital in very critical condition, incapable of making decisions for himself, with no one else to make decisions for him. The hospital and his doctors must have someone with whom they can communicate about medical decisions for the patient that must be made.
In situations such as this, the hospital will file and action in court to have someone appointed as the guardian of the patient. The guardian will need to make medical decisions for the patient and arrange for his care. In situations such as these, I am frequently appointed.
Because the people for whom I am appointed are in very, very poor health, I can honestly say that I have made end-of-life decisions for over twenty people. (Yet, I don’t consider myself an end-of-life attorney.) I can tell you without equivocation from my experiences with end-of-life decisions, which is vastly deeper than most peoples’ experiences, that medical professionals are not eager to usher a person from this world.
Most of the medical professionals with whom I have dealt are more than willing to try every technique and procedure that could possibly save a person’s life and only when it has become abundantly clear that no medical intervention can save the person will they cease providing medical interventions designed to “cure” the person.
My point is, living wills don’t kill people. If you were in a state where your doctors believed they could save your life, they aren’t going to let you die even if your healthcare agent says “Let her die.” I’ve never seen it happen, and I have seen and participated in these situations more times than you ever will.