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Lack Of Advance Directive Contributes To Family Tragedy

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In 1993, Robert Wendland suffered a terrible automobile accident. The California man never recovered sufficiently to communicate, and he was unable to participate in the controversy over the possibility of removing his feeding tube last winter.

Wendland, brain-damaged and paralyzed, lived for two years on a feeding tube threaded through his nose and into his stomach before his wife of fifteen years asked the California courts for permission to disconnect his feeding tube.

Wendland’s wife Rose insisted that he had told her before his accident that he would not want to be kept a live in a condition of total dependence. Wendland’s physicians testified that he would never recover significantly, and that his ability to think may have been impaired by the accident. They also explained that Wendland could not (or would not) interact with his environment, and that he made no attempts of his own to communicate with family, caregivers or health care providers.

Before asking the court’s permission to disconnect Wendland’s feeding tube, his wife referred the case to the ethics committee at Lodi Memorial Hospital West, where Wendland was being treated. The ethics committee, the treating physician, Mrs. Wendland, the couple’s children, and even Wendland’s brother all agreed that the tube should be disconnected, and Wendland should be allowed to die.

When Mrs. Wendland made her request to disconnect the tubes, however, Wendland’s mother and sister objected. They filed a court proceeding, in which they argued that Wendland should be kept alive and not “starved or dehydrated to death.” The court battle took nearly two years to resolve.

Last December, San Joaquin County judge Bob McNatt agreed with Wendland’s mother and sister. Saying that the case was a tough call, and that he was likely to experience sleepless nights himself, the judge ruled that “if I have to choose life and death based on the evidence presented to me, I must err on the side of caution and choose life.” The judge even went so far as to acknowledge that “it’s unknown whether I’m preserving Robert’s life or I am sentencing him to life.”

Robert Wendland’s story is tragic, of course. Beyond the human suffering occasioned by his injury and extended treatment, there is the family anguish associated with disagreements about what he would want. Although his wife insists that he did tell her his wishes, her word was ultimately not enough to permit the treatment choice she is sure he would have made.

The Wendland family tragedy is similar to a case arising from a Southern Arizona family’s disagreement three months ago. Mae Belle Owens had executed a living will and health care power of attorney, but had not shared their contents with all of her ten children. When the daughter named in the documents sought to use the power of attorney to ensure that Ms. Owens died at home, another daughter intervened, insisting that her mother would have wanted to be treated. Ms. Owens died in a Sierra Vista nursing home last February.

Most people believe that, by signing living wills and health care powers of attorney they have done all that is necessary to ensure that they do not receive unwanted medical treatment. Many others, like Robert Wendland, believe that they can take care of the problem by simply telling a spouse, child, family member or friend what their wishes would be. The tragic reality is that neither course of action is sufficient. It is critically important that documents be signed in advance, and that the contents of those documents be shared with family members, health care providers and others involved in the patient’s life. Wide distribution of the documents dramatically increases the likelihood that treatment decisions will be honored.

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Robert B. Fleming


Robert Fleming is a Fellow of both the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel and the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys. He has been certified as a Specialist in Estate and Trust Law by the State Bar of Arizona‘s Board of Legal Specialization, and he is also a Certified Elder Law Attorney by the National Elder Law Foundation. Robert has a long history of involvement in local, state and national organizations. He is most proud of his instrumental involvement in the Special Needs Alliance, the premier national organization for lawyers dealing with special needs trusts and planning.

Robert has two adult children, two young grandchildren and a wife of over fifty years. He is devoted to all of them. He is also very fond of Rosalind Franklin (his office companion corgi), and his homebound cat Muninn. He just likes people, their pets and their stories.

Elizabeth N.R. Friman


Elizabeth Noble Rollings Friman is a principal and licensed fiduciary at Fleming & Curti, PLC. Elizabeth enjoys estate planning and helping families navigate trust and probate administrations. She is passionate about the fiduciary work that she performs as a trustee, personal representative, guardian, and conservator. Elizabeth works with CPAs, financial professionals, case managers, and medical providers to tailor solutions to complex family challenges. Elizabeth is often called upon to serve as a neutral party so that families can avoid protracted legal conflict. Elizabeth relies on the expertise of her team at Fleming & Curti, and as the Firm approaches its third decade, she is proud of the culture of care and consideration that the Firm embodies. Finding workable solutions to sensitive and complex family challenges is something that Elizabeth and the Fleming & Curti team do well.

Amy F. Matheson


Amy Farrell Matheson has worked as an attorney at Fleming & Curti since 2006. A member of the Southern Arizona Estate Planning Council, she is primarily responsible for estate planning and probate matters.

Amy graduated from Wellesley College with a double major in political science and English. She is an honors graduate of Suffolk University Law School and has been admitted to practice in Arizona, Massachusetts, New York, and the District of Columbia.

Prior to joining Fleming & Curti, Amy worked for American Public Television in Boston, and with the international trade group at White & Case, LLP, in Washington, D.C.

Amy’s husband, Tom, is an astronomer at NOIRLab and the Head of Time Domain Services, whose main project is ANTARES. Sadly, this does not involve actual time travel. Amy’s twin daughters are high school students; Finn, her Irish Red and White Setter, remains a puppy at heart.

Famous people's wills

Matthew M. Mansour


Matthew is a law clerk who recently earned his law degree from the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law. His undergraduate degree is in psychology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Matthew has had a passion for advocacy in the Tucson community since his time as a law student representative in the Workers’ Rights Clinic. He also has worked in both the Pima County Attorney’s Office and the Pima County Public Defender’s Office. He enjoys playing basketball, caring for his cat, and listening to audiobooks narrated by the authors.