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When attorney Kathleen Scott Chasar was diagnosed with cancer and immediately scheduled for surgery, there was little time to consider the legal aspects of the procedure, including getting hold of the most important document involved-a Living Will. As a specialist in family and elder law, Ms. Chasar certainly had this, a Last Will and Testament and directives giving power of attorney to a family member. “But in the midst of a devastating and unexpected diagnosis, paperwork was the last thing on my mind,” she says.
During her recovery, Kathleen considered how many others might find themselves in similar circumstances, especially seniors. “A serious illness is overwhelming and exhausting,” she asserts. “Having an up-to-date Will, Living Will, and a trusted person with Power of Attorney, will do much to make this time easier for everyone concerned.”
A Living Will is essential for anyone being hospitalized. It’s a health care directive that states the individual’s wishes for end-of-life care. Without it, physicians and family members will have no legal guidance as to what an uncommunicative patient would want. With a Living Will, patients can clearly state, beforehand, that they do not want to be resuscitated, put on life support, fed intravenously or given certain medications. Doctors must follow these orders and it is essential that someone be given the authority to see these wishes are carried out. “This is where a Living Will comes in,” Kathleen says. The patient appoints someone-an attorney, family member or friend-to ensure all conditions of the Living Will are met. These directives are not just for seniors. All adults should have a Living Will regardless of age.
Living Wills are often attached to standard Wills but a 2016 survey found that across all age groups only 28.4 percent of Americans had up-to-date Wills, while 8.6% had a Will but it was out-of-date. Sixty-three percent had no Will at all. “This is really alarming” says Kathleen Chasar. People put off making a Will, claiming they do not have anything to leave or assuming assets will automatically go to a spouse or children. This is not always the case. State policies vary, and New Jersey follows the “family tree” system, distributing assets among surviving spouses and children. But with no Will, and no living spouses or children, these assets could be distributed to a relative with whom you have had no contact for years.
In cases of dementia, changes to a Will can be contested. “During the initial onset of dementia, the patient and family members should review all documents with an attorney while the patient can still make decisions,” Kathleen advises. Dementia patients have days when they understand their situation and can make decisions before their condition worsens.”
Now recovered and back in her Ewing law office, Kathleen Chasar is on a mission to raise awareness of these and other issues affecting estate planning and end-of-life choices. She holds seminars for community groups and is revising her website to reflect myriad changes in the law. “Proper preparation is key to making these unhappy situations less stressful for everyone. And it’s never too early to start.”
Kathleen Scott Chasar. 903 Parkway Avenue. (609) 882-2200.