Organ donation is often called ‘the gift of life’, because it literally can mean the difference between life and death. According to Australian Government statistics, approximately 1,400 Australians are on organ transport waiting lists at any one time.
The idea of leaving instructions for your organs to be transferred to someone else when you can no longer use them is a difficult topic for some. But for increasing numbers of people it is factoring into their estate plans – and the more difficult topic for them is how to make sure their wishes are respected when they’re gone. , There are a number of things to consider when formalising the decision to become an organ donor.
“First, registering with the Australian Organ Donor Register is important,” says Stephen Hardy, National Manager Estate Planning at Equity Trustees. “Merely specifying in your Will that you’d like to be an organ donor is valid, however it’s fraught with risk because there’s only a small window of opportunity to transplant the organs of a deceased person, and by the time the Will has been reviewed and the intention to donate verified, it may be too late.”
Legally, when a person dies, the right and responsibility to deal with their body passes to their Executor. For this reason it’s important that their Executor is aware of their intention to donate before they die. In organ donation, time is of the essence, or the opportunity is lost.
“Estate plans often deal with such assets as property, pets and possessions, but people often forget about some of their most valuable assets of all – their organs,” says Stephen. “So it’s important to make your Executor aware of your intention to become an organ donor.”
In cases where a person dies and has not indicated how they feel about organ donation, the family will need to provide consent for donation to take place – and in the majority of cases they do not, if only to ‘be on the safe side’.
At the same time, not knowing means a family can agree for their deceased relative to have their organs donated. It’s not a requirement to be registered or for that person to have referenced organ donation in their Will. However, for everyone’s sake, it is in everyone’s best interests to give some thought to the issue and let family know their thoughts on the matters.
In thinking about organ donation, Stephen also urges people to consider the different ways there are to contribute. “Organs aren’t always donated simply for transplant into another person,” he explains. “People can also offer their bodies for medical research purposes – that is, for valuable scientific or academic study. This requires a different registration process, usually through a university.”
Stephen also notes that where a body is donated for the purpose of anatomical study it will not be available for the person’s funeral, although it is later cremated and the ashes returned to their family free of charge.
A final important point is that organ donation does not have to be post-mortem. People can safely donate blood, bone marrow and even parts of their kidneys while alive, without any harm to themselves. Such donations are commonly made by the friends or family of an individual who is in need of that organ or tissue, but can be made by anyone at any time to save another person’s life. It’s probably a fair indication of a person’s views on organ donation too.
“Organ donation can be one of the most meaningful gifts anyone can give,” says Stephen. “For that reason, I would advise anyone who’s interested in becoming an organ donor to discuss it with their loved ones and register their decision today. The reality is that the more ambiguity there is around your wishes, the greater the risk that those wishes may be compromised when the time comes.”
Learn more at www.donatelife.gov.au.