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Choosing Your Own Ending: Legal Protections for End-of-Life Decisions

October 5, 2023

Discussion around end-of-life choices is slowly entering the mainstream. This is not surprising when we have an aging population and healthcare advances that can prolong life for increasingly ill people who only a few years ago might have otherwise died. However, this isn’t just an issue for the elderly or terminal patients. Every adult should document their wishes regarding healthcare in the event they are unable to make decisions for themselves. You can legally protect your right to decide your care through several methods from executing advance directives well before any need for care arises to making choices about what type of care you want and how you wish for your life to end when you are already near death. 

Legal Documents Needed to Plan for Incapacity

Either before you need assistance, or in anticipation of a need for assistance, there are documents that can be drafted and executed to ensure your wishes are followed. These include the following:

  • A Living Will with your specific directives as to how you wish to be cared for in the event of permanent unconsciousness or incapacity as in a permanent vegetative state, including withholding life-prolonging measures.
  • A Health Care Proxy designates a healthcare agent to make medical decisions for you in the event you are incapacitated.
  • Conservatorship that pre-designates a person to be appointed to be your conservator/guardian in the event you are incapacitated. For example, this might be done by someone in the early stages of dementia.

Voluntary Stopping Eating and Drinking

An adult with legal capacity can choose to stop eating and drinking. This may be done by an individual with a terminal condition. However, while such a decision is not illegal, certain medical providers might not be comfortable with this course of action. Accordingly, it is important to clearly delineate your wishes, have advance directives (i.e. living will) in place in case of incapacity, and have support among family members to help avoid problems with medical providers.

Medical Aid in Dying (MAID)

In recent years, more governments have recognized the rights of individuals to receive medical assistance to end their lives. However, it is only legal in a few states in the U.S., including Vermont, New Jersey, and Oregon. Most states (except Vermont) require the person to be a resident of the state. Each jurisdiction has its own requirements, including providing for an allowable method of medically ending one’s life, with very strict protocols to ensure an individual has made a considered and informed decision. These laws also set forth eligibility rules, for example, that a doctor must certify the person has a terminal illness.

Conclusion

Ultimately, all of the concepts and directives described above are about self-determination. Whether you are setting forth your wishes before you need medical assistance, after a recent diagnosis, or when your condition has worsened, this kind of planning is prudent. It protects you, effectuates your choices, and provides guidance and comfort to those caring for you. 

If you haven’t planned for incapacity or end-of-life care, contact us for a consultation. We can ensure you execute the necessary legal documents as well as help you develop a comprehensive estate plan that meets your needs.

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