Medical Treatment Decisions & Living Wills

Advance directives are legal documents which let you communicate your decisions about end-of-life care. Many of you know about Terri Schiavo, who had a heart attack in 1990 and died in 2005. The fifteen years in between involved a sad public battle between her husband’s desire to let her die and her family’s desire to continue treatment. You do not want a judge to decide your medical treatment. Had Schiavo specified her wishes in writing, she would have spared her family many years of fighting and heartbreak.

Under Colorado medical treatment decision law, when your doctors conclude that you “lack decisional capacity to provide informed consent to or refusal of medical treatment,” they must make “reasonable efforts” to find as many “interested persons” as they can. “Interested persons” include your spouse, parents, adult children, siblings, grandchildren, or close friends. Interested persons must then make “reasonable efforts to reach a consensus” and choose a “proxy decision maker.” Your proxy decision maker “should be the person who has a close relationship with [you] and who is most likely to be currently informed of [your] wishes regarding medical treatment decisions.” C.R.S. § 15-18.5-103.

As illustrated by the Schiavo case, leaving your end-of-life wishes undocumented can create unnecessary conflict because your loved ones may not agree. In Colorado, there are a number of ways to document your wishes that our Denver estate planning attorneys can guide you through. You can prepare a medical power of attorney (“POA”) and name an agent to make decisions for you, including life and death decisions. You can give your agent power to act upon your incapacity as determined by your treating physician. You may choose to do a medical POA because your agent will be able to make an informed decision based on your specific medical prognosis.

Alternatively, you can also do a living will. A living will lets you make your own end-of-life decisions. If two physicians certify that your condition is terminal or that you are in a persistent vegetative state, you can direct that life sustaining procedures be withheld or withdrawn. You can also specify your preferences regarding artificial nutrition and hydration, with one caveat – your doctors may order that these be continued if they are necessary to provide comfort and alleviate pain. You may want a living will if you have strong feelings about not wanting to be kept on life support. A living will can mitigate any feelings of responsibility or guilt that your family or friends may feel.