Jewish World Review June 7, 2004 /16 Sivan, 5764
Jan L. Warner & Jan Collins
My parents need a caring lawyer
Q: At my parents' request, I accompanied them (both nearly 80) to meet with their lawyer in order to sign their powers of attorney and wills. As I sat there, I couldn't believe my ears and eyes: The attorney utterly failed to explain the documents he expected them to sign, especially their health care options, which made them very nervous. In fact, he became so rude when my parents asked him questions that I suggested they leave and sign nothing until we find the right person. I am disturbed that the elderly get short shrift from their doctors and lawyers. Heaven knows what would have happened had I not been there. Don't lawyers go to school to learn how to deal with clients?
A: Unfortunately, many law schools, like medical schools, don't take enough time to inform students about the practicalities of dealing with clients. While some school curricula offer internships allowing students to "shadow" lawyers for a semester, there are few of these programs. It's important for all consumers of legal services especially seniors to understand what they are signing before they put their names on the line.
That said, in many instances, asking a lawyer to explain the basics of the right of self-determination and health care planning is akin to asking directions from a mannequin. This is unfortunate, given the fact that few issues have received more attention over the last 25 years than the right of competent individuals to decide in advance to refuse medical treatment under certain circumstances a right that was recognized as early as 1914.
Nothing is more frustrating to families than facing an end-of-life situation with an incapacitated loved one who has not planned in advance and in writing. The only way to prepare for end-of-life decisions is through an educational process culminating in the execution of advance directives that allow individuals to say now what treatment he or she would want or wouldn't want later and under what circumstances.
Health-care planning has become not only an emotional issue, but also an important economic issue and an integral part of retirement and estate-planning. Those who wish to maintain control over their futures and to manage end-of-life issues must be educated about advance directives.
Because planning for future health care needs presents difficult questions for individuals and their families, it's important that those to whom they may turn for help doctors, lawyers and nurses are able and willing to provide explanations and answers. But, as you have learned, some are not trained, or are not willing, to spend the time to answer these important questions and to help seniors design appropriate health-care plans in the face of their fears and concerns about death and the dying process.
Although there are many schools of thought on how best to get information from a client, we believe that nothing beats asking direct questions that folks can understand:
1. If you were terminally ill and permanently incompetent, would you want any life-sustaining treatment to be continued?
2. If you were permanently unconscious, whether you were terminally ill or not, would you want any life-sustaining treatment to be continued?
3. Whether terminally ill or not, would you want to be kept alive if you were unconscious, had very little chance of ever recovering consciousness and would almost certainly be very brain-damaged if you did recover consciousness?
4. Whether terminally ill nor not, would you want to be kept alive if you were gravely ill, had only a very slight chance of recovering (5 percent or less) and would probably require weeks or months of further treatment before it was clear whether or not you would recover, and then only with questions about your quality of life?
5. If you chose to have life-support discontinued in any of the above conditions, would you desire, in addition to discontinuing any other life-support measures, that fluids and nutrition be discontinued?
Failure to communicate is the most common reason the courts become involved in what should be personal decisions. In our view, training lawyers and doctors, for that matter to deal with these important matters appropriately is the obligation of professional schools and organizations. Based on your description of your parents' experience, we believe that your advice to your parents was justified and correct. Find someone who can cut the mustard.
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JAN L. WARNER received his A.B. and J.D. degrees from the University of South Carolina and earned a Master of Legal Letters (L.L.M.) in Taxation from the Emory University School of Law in Atlanta, Georgia. He is a frequent lecturer at legal education and public information programs throughout the United States. His articles have been published in national and state legal publications. Jan Collins began co-authoring Flying SoloŽ in 1989. She has more than 27 years of experience as a journalist, writer, and editor. To comment or ask a question, please click here.
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© 2003, Jan Warner