It's been a very interesting month in the probate and estate planning field for gay rights. Always a controversial issue, gay and lesbian life partners and their rights often present difficult legal questions for judges. Recently in New York (a state which does not recognize gay marriages), a Surrogate's Court judge ruled that a person claiming spousal rights in an estate of his gay partner who died was entitled to have the same rights as any widower, because the marriage was done in Canada where it was legal.
In other words, even though New York would not have allowed the formation of the gay marriage, it was legal in the jurisdiction where it began, so the New York judge honored it. Here is an article discussing it.
Now a federal court judge in Florida is facing a similar dilemma -- albeit one that won't necessarily be decided based on gay rights. Jancie Langbehn was a life partner of 39-year-old Lisa Marie Pond for 17 years, until Pond fell into a coma and died at the Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami. When this happened, Langbehn understandably wanted to be at Pond's side.
But, according to her lawsuit, the hospital wouldn't allow it. She asked every doctor and other hospital employee she saw to let her in the room, or at least be consulted about Pond's condition. They refused. Pond died in February, 2007. For the eight hours that Pond was in the hospital, Langbehn and the couple's four adopted children claim they weren't allowed to spend time with Pond or receive updates about her medical decision. Langbehn says that the hospital's refusal to give her this information interfered with her ability to decide whether or not to consent to surgery and make other important end-of-life decisions for Pond.
Whether or not you believe in gay rights, there is an aspect to this case that is especially troubling, if the claims filed by Langbehn's attorney are true. Langbehn had power of attorney for Pond, meaning that Pond had appointed Langbehn as her lawful agent to make medical decisions for her if she became unable to do so. Langbehn claims that the hospital ignored the power of attorney, which is a violation of state law and the hospital's written policies.
Certainly, a tragic case. The Langbehn-Pond family lived in Washington state and only visited Florida for a cruise. Pond suffered a sudden aneurysm and died unexpectedly, while she was so young.
If the lawsuit allegations are indeed true, the hospital breached several legal duties in refusing to honor the power of attorney. The hospital employees also violated the family's ethical and moral right to be with Pond during her last hours of life -- even if the judge finds that no legal rights were broken. They certainly made a horrible situation much, much worse for Langbehn and her four adopted children (again, if her claims are true).
Indeed, that is the very reason why every adult should have a power of attorney document (the exact name for these documents vary from state to state). It allows adults to name someone else to make their medical decisions once they are unable to do so.
Tragedy can strike at any age, any time. It is crucial for families to plan ahead. Lisa Marie Pond did everything right. Cases where hospitals or others disregard these important legal documents are rare; but it does happen. Again, if the claims are true, I for one hope that the federal court judge holds the hospital accountable. Power of attorney documents serve a very important role for every adult who has one; they should never be disregarded or ignored.
Attorneys for the hospital and its employees filed a motion asking the judge to dismiss the case. The judge indicated at a hearing on February 6th that he would issue a decision in the near future. The Miami Herald reported on the case, which you can read about here.
As of today, no decision has been issued yet, according to the available on-line court records.
Posted by: Author and probate attorney Andrew W. Mayoras, co-author of Trial & Heirs: Famous Fortune Fights! and co-founder and shareholder of The Center for Probate Litigation and The Center for Elder Law in metro-Detroit, Michigan, which concentrate in probate litigation, estate planning, and elder law. You can email him at awmayoras @ brmmlaw.com.Follow us on Google+