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Life and death decisions you should make now

Updated: May 3, 2013 12:14PM

Originally published: March 23, 2005

The anguished debate over the fate of Terri Schiavo reveals two subjects most people prefer to avoid: health care powers of attorney and living wills.

If Schiavo had signed these two simple forms, her situation never would have reached the current impasse. Unfortunately, it serves as a warning that all adults must create the proper documentation to prepare for the unexpected. Here’s what you need:

Health care power of attorney

A durable health care power of attorney is sometimes called a health care proxy. It is an officially signed and witnessed document that names an individual to make health care decisions if you are unable to make those decisions yourself.

Give serious thought to the person you name with this power. It should be someone who cares for you deeply, but also can remain calm and rational in a crisis, choosing among alternative treatments.

In most states, this power would have allowed the holder to give instructions to remove a feeding tube -- or to keep it in place.

The health care power does not bind the holder to take any specific course of action, but merely empowers him or her to make health care decisions on your behalf and give direction to the physician.

That’s why you’ll also want to create a living will.

The living will

The living will is the document that expresses the individual’s wishes regarding being kept alive under certain conditions.

If you do not want to be maintained on life support systems in a vegetative state, then you’ll want to sign a living will and make sure that your family has a copy, as well as your physician, who will place it in your medical file.

The living will is the document that instructs the person to whom you’ve given the durable health care power of attorney to “pull the plug” on life-sustaining equipment under those circumstances. If you have a living will but no health care power of attorney, then it’s entirely possible that the issue will be decided in some sort of court procedure. Your living will could be an important, but not the only, factor in a decision made by a judge.

And there’s one more life and death issue you should consider at this point.

Organ donation

If you want to be an organ donor, sign your Illinois driver’s license. (Not all states provide that convenient opportunity.)

And also write a note to that effect, giving a copy to your physician and family. In a moment of crisis or accident when minutes make the difference for donating healthy organs, you want to leave a wide paper trail documenting your decision.

While many of these simple directives are available online and office supply stores, I always advise consulting an estate planning attorney who knows the laws of your state. After all, if you’ve made a mistake, you won’t be in any position to correct it by the time it’s discovered. And that’s The Savage Truth.

Terry Savage is a registered investment adviser and appears weekly on WMAQ-Channel 5’s newscasts.

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