More Estate Planning Lessons from Grey’s Anatomy

This past Thursday was the two hour season premier of Grey’s Anatomy.  Meredith’s mentor and father figure (Richard) has been electrocuted and is lying on floor in the bowels of the hospital.  The evil machinations of an intern vying to get back into the good graces and surgery room with McDreamy (a brain surgeon) sends another intern to her death in search of Richard.  This intern ultimately goes in search of them both and finds his competition dead and Richard unconscious.  Richard ends up in surgery having a balloon inserted in his aorta.  Once the surgery is over, Dr. Yang and Dr. Bailey clash over doing another surgery to find out why Richard’s condition isn’t improving.  As they are going head to head, the Chief of Surgery , Owen (Yang’s ex-husband and now secret lover) asks them who has been appointed to make Richard’s medical decisions.  A search in his personnel file reveals that Richard has appointed Meredith as the person to make his medical decisions when he can not do it for himself.

Meredith is stunned to be told she is Richard’s healthcare agent.  She is not only stunned but a little peeved because Richard told her nothing about naming her as his agent.  She has had no discussion with him about the kind of medical care he might or might not want to receive. She is immediately pounced on by Yang and Bailey to decide if Richard is going to have the surgery that Bailey wants to do.  Yang is opposed to it because she doesn’t think his heart can withstand another surgery.  Meredith decides they should run a test and if the number from the test is above six then Richard will have Bailey’s surgery.  Meredith is worried about whether or not she has made the right decision since she is hormonal after having just given birth and doesn’t know what Richard would have wanted her to do since he didn’t discuss anything with her.

Enter, high strung girlfriend.  Richard has a girlfriend, who is a doctor.  She shows up at the hospital in the middle of all the chaos going on and Richard’s surgery.  While Bailey and Owen have Richard’s bowels out on a table she is in the viewing room screaming at Bailey and Owen to close him up and asking how they could perform such a risky surgery.  At this point, she has no idea that Meredith has been appointed Richard’s health care agent.  She is yelling saying she is going to have Richard moved to another hospital, despite the fact that her son runs the hospital which has been funded by their family foundation.  She is understandably emotional and fearful about loosing Richard.  In a later scene, Meredith has embraced her role as Richard’s healthcare agent.  Meredith, the girlfriend, Bailey and Yang are at his bedside.  The girlfriend is talking about things that she thinks should be done and again about moving him.  Meredith, tactfully but firmly tells her that she is not the person Richard decided should make those decisions, she was.  Her role was to be his girlfriend and that was it.

So, what does this little drama teach us?  Unfortunately it is not  uncommon for those engaging in estate planning to assign someone to make decisions for them when they can not do it for themselves without having talked to the person they have named.  This is truly unfair to that person and can cause family strife during a time when emotions are likely to be running high.  All too often people engage in estate planning with a mindset that it should be done in secret and folks will find out what they need to know only when something happens.  This is typically not a good strategy.  When it comes to naming any person that is going to make decisions for you, particularly decisions that could affect whether you live or die, they have a right to know they have been put in that role and should be told what kind of care you would and wouldn’t want.  You might find out that it is not a responsibility they want.  If you haven’t appointed an alternate, someone who you would not have wanted to make medical decisions for you may end up in the position.

Make sure you have a medical power of attorney and that you have had discussions with the person you appointed as your healthcare agent prior to naming them to make sure it is a role they want to serve in and that they know what you would want.  In Texas, an agent under a medical power of attorney is obligated to follow your known wishes.  If they don’t know what you would have wanted, they may make a decision that you would not have wanted.

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