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The Right To Die

long island attorneyThere was a recent case in Long Island, New York concerning issues surrounding “the right to die.” Sungeon Grace Lee, age 28, decided her life was no longer worth living. She advised her doctors she wanted to end her life by cutting off the life support system keeping her alive. Her parents, who are deeply religious, vehemently opposed their daughter’s wishes

Tumor On Her Brain

Ms. Lee had a tumor on her brain stem. She had been suffering from seizures. During one of her seizures she was rushed to North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, New York. The seizure left her paralyzed from the neck down. At that time, she was hooked up to a life support machine that allowed her to breathe.

Parent’s Sue To Keep Daughter Alive

Ms. Lee’s mother, Jin Ah Lee, and her father, Man Oh Lee, a Pastor of the Antioch Missionary church in Flushing, Queens, were both deeply religious people. They retained an attorney and obtained a restraining order preventing their daughter from ending her life. After protracted litigation, both the trial court and appellate court set aside the petition of Sungeon Lee’s parents. In their decision, the courts indicated that the daughter was competent to make her own medical decisions. However, in the end, Ms. Lee agreed to withdraw her request to be allowed to die and complied with her parents’ wishes.

Ms. Lee has been moved from North Shore University Hospital to her parents’ home where she is competently taken care of.

About The Author

elder care helpElliot S. Schlissel, Esq. is an Elder Law Attorney with more than 35 years of legal experience. He represents individuals concerning Medicaid planning, wills, trusts and estate matters, end of life issues and estate planning matters.

Baby Boomers Need Wills

Death is unpleasant. Why would anyone want to think about such an unpleasant subject. However, as unpleasant as death may be, everything that lives will eventually die. End of life issues are difficult to face. However, the failure to face end of life issues can create untenable, difficult, and painful situations for your loved ones.

Living Will

A Living Will is a document that spells out an individual’s wishes with regards to the type of medical care he or she wants to have. It is only utilized when the individual who drafts the document is no longer capable of communicating with doctors directly. It deals with issues such as life support and medical treatments that do not prolong life but only prolong death and suffering.

Health Care Proxy

A Health Care Proxy is sometimes called a health care power of attorney. This allows an individual to select someone he or she trusts to make decisions about medical care during a period of time when they are in incapacitated or unable to communicate their wishes.

Cathy Brant is the senior vice president in the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization states that living wills and health care proxies are a good idea for everyone whether they are healthy and young or older and not so healthy. She states further that these two documents can spare families painful fights and ensure patients receive – or don’t receive – the medical treatments they wish should they end up in a situation where they can’t speak for themselves.

Avoiding The Terri Schiavo Situation

Terri Schiavo collapsed in 1990, in her home. She did not have any advance directives regarding end of life care issues. Her heart stopped. She suffered irreversible brain injuries. She was left in a vegetative state. Her husband, who loved her very much, stated she had told him she would not want to live in a vegetative state. He parents vehemently disagreed with Terri’s husband. They wanted her kept alive without regard to the quality of her life. Her husband and parents litigated for years concerning the issue of turning off her life support system. The case eventually went to the Supreme Court. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees were expended concerning this issue. In 2005, the court ordered her feeding tubes removed and she died two weeks later.

There are many issues individuals face as they grow older. Drafting health care proxies, will and living wills are issues that Americans should face up to.

Elder Care Lawyers

The Law Offices of Schlissel DeCorpo has more than thirty years of experience in handling all types of Estate related matters. We probate Wills. We litigate Will contests. We draft Wills and Trusts. We create guardianships for clients. We have developed expertise concerning Estate Tax issues, Revocable Living Trusts, Irrevocable Trusts, Elder Care issues, nursing home abuse matters, Medicaid, Medicare planning techniques, Special Needs Trusts and Supplement Needs Trusts for our clients. Call us for a free consultation. Our phones are monitored 24/7. We can be reached at 1-800-344-6431, 516-561-6645 or 718-350-2802.

NY Family Health Care Decisions Act

Family Health CareGovernor David Patterson, in the State of New York has recently signed into law the Family Health Care Decisions Act. This statute authorizes health care decisions to be made for a person who is incapacitated and has not prepared a healthcare proxy specifically indicating his or her wishes. This statute authorizes family members without a written advanced directive to make decisions to withhold or withdraw life support systems for their family members.

The best means for dealing with making of medical decisions, if you should become disabled or incapable of making your own medical decisions, is to execute a health care proxy appointing someone you trust to make these decisions for you. Unfortunately more than 75,000 incapacitated individuals die each year in the State of New York with out having a health care proxy. Court decisions have ruled that life sustaining treatment cannot be withheld or withdrawn without clear and convincing evidence that the person would decline if they could. This has resulted in people being subject to fruitless treatments that actually violates their personal wishes or religious beliefs.

The new statue sets up a hierarchy to determine those individuals who can make the choices. The list of individuals capable of making these choices range from a guardian, to spouse, to a domestic partner, an adult son or daughter, parent, adult brother or sister, and/or some other relative or close friend. The purpose of the statue is to prevent needless medical treatment for those who, if they were competent, would not want it.

Elliot Schlissel, Esq.

Image courtesy of Sun Sentinel

Cremation or Burial – Autopsy or Not – Who Decides?

funeral-home

Robert Harper, of the NY Trusts & Estates Litigation blog, recently wrote about the law as it relates to the right to decide how human remains are disposed of in New York. The article quoted NY Public Health Law § 4201(2)(a), which identifies an order of priority of who has the right to direct how a deceased person’s remains are disposed of. An individual may execute a document specifying whom she wishes to decide issues related to how to dispose of her body, but if no such written instrument exists, then the individuals listed in § 4201 determine the order of priority.

Other important issues exist regarding how a loved one’s body is treated after death as well regarding whether a body is autopsied or cremated.

Cremation

With regard to the decision whether bury or cremate an individual’s body, there is an order of priority for how that decision is made, as noted above, and there is an exception to the rule.

1. If the decedent left a document specifying how her remains should be disposed of (i.e. burial versus cremation), then that document controls. NY Public Health Law § 4201(2)(a)

2. If no such document existed, but the decedent’s actions or expressed wishes dictated how her body should be handled after death, then those wishes control, even over the objections of family members. Application of Hillard, 91 N.Y.S. 2d 547, 549 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 1944).

3. If the decedent had no discernable wishes as to how her body should be disposed of, then the statutory order of priority determines which relatives decide how the decedent’s body is disposed of. NY Public Health Law § 4201(2)(a)

However, there is an exception to the order of priority listed in the § 4201. For instance, a surviving spouse and children are high in the order of priority to decide how a body is disposed of us a surviving spouse, but where there is evidence that the decedent was estranged from his or her spouse or children, the courts look beyond those individuals to decide how a decedent’s body should be disposed of. In re Solomon, 766 N.Y.S. 2d 294, 295 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 2003).

In one relatively recent Nassau County Supreme Court case, a deceased person’s estranged wife and daughter were planning to have him cremated, and his body was already in the custody of a crematorium. Based on testimony that the decedent led a somewhat observant Jewish life, and based on the expert testimony of Rabbi Moshe Weinberger that orthodox Jews consider cremation unacceptable, the court held that evidence of the decedent’s desire to have a traditional Jewish burial overcame the wishes of the surviving spouse and daughter, the provisions of § 4201 notwithstanding. Id.

The Performance of an Autopsy

NY Public Health Law § 4210 gives the medical examiner the power or right to perform an autopsies on, “… the bodies of persons dying from… casualty, … suddenly when in apparent health, … or in any suspicious or unusual manner.” But § 4210-c(1) states that absent some compelling public policy need, “no dissection or autopsy shall be performed over the objection of a surviving relative … that such procedure is contrary to the religious belief of the decedent, or, if there is reason to believe that a dissection or autopsy is contrary to the decedent’s religious beliefs.”

Absent one of the circumstances specified in § 4210, the medical examiner may not do an autopsy on a body without notice to the family of the deceased. Dick v. City of New York, 2002 WL 31844745, *3 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. Oct. 30, 2002). However, “the burden is upon a decedent’s next of kin to convey a religious objection to the medical examiner’s office” were the death occurred in some unusual manner, or upon notice, absent some unusual or suspicious circumstances surrounding the death.” Id.

If an autopsy is performed despite notice that there are religious objections, the hospital may be held liable for civil damages. In Rotholtz v. City of New York, 582 N.Y.S. 2d 366, 367 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 1992), the decedent’s brother informed a doctor at Lenox Hill Hospital that an autopsy should not be performed on his sister, but the hospital failed to convey this message when it turned the body over to the medical examiner, who performed an autopsy. The court there held that the hospital was responsible because when it failed to inform the medical examiner of the family’s religious objection to the performance of an autopsy, it thereby “caused or procured” the unauthorized autopsy. Id. at 670.

The Appellate Division reinstated a jury’s decision to award a surviving family $75,000 compensatory damages and $1,350,000 in punitive damages when an employee at Riverside Chapels caused the medical examiner’s office to perform an autopsy even though the family had told Riverside employees that they were orthodox Jews and that no autopsy should be performed. Liberman v. Riverside Memorial Chapel, Inc., 650 N.Y.S. 2d 194, 197-99 (N.Y. App. Div. 1996).

Conclusion

The safest way to ensure that one’s wishes regarding how his or her remains are disposed of after death will be honored is by executing a Will which makes those wishes clear. The named Executor will be able to ensure that the appropriate people know of your wishes. And as for family members, even though it is a very difficult time after the loss of a loved one, miscommunications can be avoided more easily if everyone they speak to at the hospital, the nursing home, and the medical examiner’s office (if they are involved) are made aware of your wishes with regard to how the deceased’s body should be treated.

And of course, if you need assistance with any estate planning documents like Living Wills, Powers of Attorney, Wills, or Trusts, our office has extensive experience with these documents. Feel free to contact our office at any time for assistance.

Picture courtesy of the Hoven Funeral Home.

Update 8/26/09: Indiana Creates Funeral Planning Directive

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