March 31 was a day of reflection for me, marking the 17th anniversary of the passing of Terri Schiavo, 13 days after being removed from a feeding tube on March 18, 2005, at the behest of a local court.
This capped a bitter, decade-long legal battle that involved Congress and even the president – and in the process, sparked a fierce national debate over end-of-life wishes in America, and the tragic depths to which familial conflict can reach when someone becomes incapacitated without having first completed an advance medical directive (also known as a living will).
For anyone in the estate planning profession, March 31 remains a meaningful date that symbolizes the “why” behind what we do. Having a complete estate plan isn’t just about leaving behind a legacy – it also allows the last days of life to be truly about our loved ones. The Terri Schiavo case is a constant, high-profile reminder that being able to say goodbye in a way that is in accordance with each person’s faith and values is not a given. In fact, 70% of Americans today still don’t have a will.
My Own Family’s Story
The Terri Schiavo case also carries personal resonance for me. In October 2011, shortly after I began my career as a trusts and estates lawyer, my otherwise healthy mother was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. The news was shocking. While helping others plan their estates was my career, it suddenly became deeply personal. The memory of Terri Schiavo and her death less than a decade prior prompted us to make sure we fully understood what my mother’s wishes were.
As a great testament to her thoughtfulness and love for her family, my mother had already done much of the legwork when it came to setting her estate plan. Many people do not. Death is unpleasant to think about, but it’s a universal experience. Planning the decision-making over one’s property, healthcare and finances ahead of time in the event that one becomes incapacitated or passes away can prevent hardship like that suffered by Terri Schiavo from ever occurring.
My mother had a will, a durable power of attorney and an advance medical directive completed or nearing completion at the time of her diagnosis. This was all very helpful, as she (and really, our family) wasn’t forced to begin the planning process from scratch during this difficult time. I can attest from my time as an estate planning lawyer that it can be particularly challenging to plan when someone’s health is already in the declining stages.
Grateful for Meaningful Moments
All of this allowed us to spend our remaining time together …….