From my discussions with estate planning attorneys, I know that many of you are always on the lookout for current stories to help clients understand the value of the estate planning you’re proposing.
‘The Descendants,” this year’s Oscar-winning film (best adapted screenplay) might serve just this purpose – at the very least vis-a-vis your clients’ healthcare directives.
First of all, just mentioning George Clooney to your clients might help get their attention. Second, the story conveys several powerful messages about the benefits of written advance directives and of making medical decisions in advance.
This film sets up George Clooney as a middle-aged husband whose vital, healthy wife has just been seriously injured in a tragic boat racing accident. She now lies in a coma on life support. The Clooney character, Matt King, reveals himself to us through his anguished, bedside pleadings with his wife, Elizabeth, to awaken from her coma. After three weeks of waiting, doctors tell Matt that she will never wake again.
Enter the living will. Elizabeth has completed one, and it states that she wants life support to be terminated in a medical situation like this one. (The film doesn’t mention an HCPOA.) During multiple scenes, we see King telling family and friends of her permanent condition and her medical wishes.
The film conveys, poignantly, the value that an advance directive can play for a family experiencing a devastating tragedy like this one.
The movie does this largely through what it doesn’t show us. Precisely because Elizabeth has a living will, we don’t see the added emotional difficulties the family might face if she had not completed an advance directive.
- We don’t see the doctor asking Matt King what he thinks his wife would have wanted, and King trying to decide himself, potentially agonizingly, whether to terminate her life support.
- We don’t see the compounded anger and resentments of their rebellious teenage daughter (who, beneath it all, still identifies with her mother) that might result from seeing her father put in the position of making this difficult decision.
- We don’t see the added confusion of their 10 year old daughter, who might perceive that her father has “chosen” to end her mother’s life.
- And while we do see Matt’s father-in-law blame Matt for his wife’s boating accident, we don’t see him blaming Matt for discontinuing the life support. Without the advance directive document, Elizabeth’s father, in his own grief, might not be able to resist the temptation to blame Matt for this, too.
What we do see clearly presented on screen is that advance care planning is actually a gift to one’s family in tragic situations. Indeed, when Matt King shows his wife’s father her living will and explains that she will be removed from life support, her father responds: “Elizabeth had the good sense to write this thing. She’s a strong girl. A thoughtful girl.”
P.S. “The Descendants” also has a strong plotline about other estate planning matters. See this Forbes article for a full analysis of the estate planning issues presented.
Randi J. Siegel, MBA, is the President of DocuBank, the largest advance directives registry in the U.S., which ensures that the healthcare directives of its 190,000 enrollees are immediately available 24/7/365. Working with estate planning professionals since 1997, Randi frequently speaks at national estate planning conferences and has appeared on radio and television as an authority on registries. She is active in health policy pertaining to advance directives and serves as a Senior Fellow at the Jefferson School of Population Health in Philadelphia. Randi is an ongoing contributor to the Academy blog.
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