A living will, unlike a last will and testament, has no relationship to the distribution of your assets. Instead, living wills are documents that contain your instructions to your health care providers regarding what types of treatment you would, or would not, like to receive to prolong your life. Advances in modern medicine now allow health care providers to sustain, and prolong, the lives of their patients under even the most dire of circumstances sometimes. Cases like the Terri Schiavo legal drama in Florida point to doctors’ abilities to sustain life, even after severe and massive damage to the brain, if the body is otherwise healthy. For some patients, the quality of this type of prolonged life is not worth living. They consider dying without such life-extending treatments more dignified and, ultimately, less painful for themselves and their families. A living will gives you the option to instruct health care providers which treatments to administer, and which to withhold, in the event you are diagnosed as terminally ill or in a permanent vegetative state.
In 1990, 26-year-old Terri Schiavo collapsed in her home. After ten weeks in a coma, Schiavo awoke in a persistent vegetative state. In 1998, Schiavo’s husband sought to remove her feeding tube. What ensued was a seven-year
court struggle pitting Schiavo’s husband against her parents in a battle over whether to continue artificial life support.
In 1983, 25-year-old Nancy Cruzan, as a result of an auto accident, awoke from a coma in a persistent vegetative state. After four years awaiting a recovery, Cruzan’s family sought to remove her feeding tube. After three years of court wrangling, the Cruzan family finally convinced a judge that Nancy would not have wanted to live on artificial life support and received permission to have Nancy’s feeding tube removed.
One of the common themes of these two women was that neither Cruzan nor Schiavo had advance directives expressing their wishes regarding artificial life support or other life-sustaining medical care. Both cases involved
families going to court and asking judges to interpret what the incapacitated person’s wishes were. In the Schiavo case, that court battle featured an extremely bitter struggle between Terri’s husband and her parents.