It’s the stuff of movies: A person dies, and the family gathers for the reading of the will, which has been locked away from view. Cue the dramatic music, and a close family member gets nothing while the loyal maid (or cat) inherits millions.

But when it comes to living wills, forget all the stereotypes. You’ll need a living will while you are still around, and the more people who know you have it and what it says, the better.

Quite simply, a living will lays out how you want your medical care to be handled in the event that you can’t make decisions for yourself, focusing on end-of-life issues. It works in conjunction with a Health Care Power of Attorney, which names a proxy to make a wide range of medical decisions.

Ohio state versions of these forms are readily available online at no cost. Opinions differ about whether a legal professional is needed to complete the forms. Herbert L. Braverman of Herbert L. Braverman & Associates notes the forms contain many details that are best left to a lawyer. Errors or a lack of clarity in those details, he says, “could lead to delays or difficulties.”

Gary A. Zwick, a partner at Walter & Haverfield, says for some people, completing the forms on their own is fine. “It’s not rocket science,” Zwick notes, although people must “take the time to read the forms very carefully.” Ultimately, he recommends that if you can’t commit about 90 minutes to really studying the forms, hire a professional. It’s also not a good idea to draft your own form. Doctors (and hospital legal departments) prefer the standard Ohio forms. If you spend large blocks of time in another state, it’s a good idea to have forms for those states as well, Braverman says.

Whether you go the DIY route or hire an attorney, “Every person should have these, regardless of age or personal life circumstances,” Braverman adds. And you should have them sooner rather than later, he continues. “The time to fill these out is not when you are being rushed to the hospital.”

David W. Woodburn, a partner at Buckingham, Doolittle & Burroughs, says the Terry Schiavo case, which pitted a husband against a terminally ill young woman’s parents and spent years in the courts before drawing attention from the U.S. Congress, raised people’s awareness of the need for these documents. It also disabused people of the idea that living wills are only for senior citizens.

In good faith

As do many faiths, Judaism has something to say about medical treatment, as well as end-of-life and post-mortem issues. Several years ago, Agudath Israel of America, working with attorneys, prepared halachic healthcare proxy forms, which combine both the living will and the healthcare power of attorney into a single document that also addresses the needs of Jews. (Details and forms for various states are available at www.jlaw.com.)

Rabbi Naphtali Burnstein of Young Israel of Greater Cleveland notes the medical community simply isn’t always on the same page as the Jewish community. For example, “Jewish law is very sensitive to the sanctity of the human body,” he explains. That sanctity continues after death, which can lead to postmortem issues. The goal of the halachic healthcare proxy is simply to ensure that whatever decisions are made are done so in accordance with Jewish law.

Pass it around

Braverman recommends when you complete your documents, you should execute more than one original. Keep one with your doctor, as well as any specialists you see regularly. Give copies to people who are named as decision-makers so they can be prepared for the responsibility and understand what you want.

“This is a document you want everyone to know you have,” Braverman says.

You may also want to register your forms with an online registry such as www.docubank.com. For an annual fee, you’ll get a small card to carry in your wallet that informs medical workers how to access your document; the companies also typically remind you to update addresses and phone numbers each year.

Obviously, no document and no amount of preparation is going to ease the pain of losing a loved one. But Woodburn says that in his years of experience, he’s found that having living wills and healthcare powers of attorney in place makes it easier for families to make it through a loved one’s passing without conflict or self-doubt about end-of-life decisions.

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