How An Advance Medical Directive Can Save Your Life

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May 1, 2012

When Gary Coleman fell into a coma in 2010 after suffering from a brain hemorrhage, his ex-wife ordered his doctor to disconnect life support. While married, Coleman made an advance medical directive (AMD) and appointed his then-wife to make health care decisions on his behalf in the event that he became disabled. When the couple divorced in 2008, Coleman had not revoked his AMD meaning his ex-wife retained the authority to make health care decisions on his behalf.

An advance medical directive allows a person, also referred to as the “principal,” to authorize another individual to make health care decisions on the principal’s behalf should he or she become disabled. Many people have filled out an advance directive, either while at the hospital or with an attorney; and, like Coleman, many people appoint their spouse as the agent or decision maker. After filling out an AMD, many people simply forget about it and it does not cross their mind in a subsequent divorce.

Fortunately, in Oregon (and unlike Coleman’s ex-spouse), a spouse’s authority under an AMD is suspended when a petition for divorce is filed, unless the appointment is reaffirmed in writing by the principal. Despite this, divorcing couples should consider filling out a new AMD and appoint someone other than their soon-to-be ex-spouse as agent. The principal should also be sure to tell his or her health care provider that his or her spouse no longer has authority to make health care decisions on the principal’s behalf.

On the other hand, if the divorce is amicable, and the spouses otherwise trust each other, they may want that spouse to continue to act as agent, and need to reaffirm that in writing. An agent should be someone who is deeply trusted by the principal, and the principal should have many conversations with his or her agent about what kind of decisions the principal would like the agent to make if he or she becomes unable. While older advance medical directives can be neglected during the emotional and financial stresses of divorce, they are an important item to revisit with an attorney during and after a separation.