What is a Legal Death?

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  • Written By: Claudette M. Pendleton
  • Edited By: C. Wilborn
  • Last Modified Date: 16 March 2020
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Legal death occurs when a qualified individual proclaims that additional medical care is no longer suitable for a patient, and that the patient should be declared dead under the law. In order to pronounce a patient legally dead, however, there are specific conditions that must be met. These conditions vary according to each circumstance. This is often due to moral and ethical conflicts in regards to what is considered a legal death.

Many of the cells within the body and brain are still alive for hours after a patient is pronounced dead. A regular death is the total ending of a person's life or the complete stoppage of blood circulation and every vital function of the body. Therefore, a regular death and legal death are not the same.

In situations where a patient has entered into a coma and has no brain activity, a qualified professional can pronounce the patient to be legally dead. When there is no activity in the brain, a patient is declared to be brain dead. Brain death is considered to be a coma that cannot be reversed.


The legal right for a qualified professional to declare a patient brain dead varies by jurisdiction. Declaring a patient brain dead is legal in most of the United States, for example. New Jersey and New York have conditions, however, that must be met before a qualified person can officially make the pronouncement. In these states, the patient's lungs and heart have to completely stop functioning as well before the patient can be pronounced brain dead.

Many people confuse a vegetative state with brain death, but the two states are not the same. A vegetative state occurs when a patient is in a coma due to severe brain damage; there may be some form of awareness, although he or she may still have no noticeable consciousness. When a patient is brain dead, he or she has no activity in the brain at all.

The science of cryonics is also an area where a qualified professional can pronounce a patient legally dead. It involves preserving a person or animal at extremely low temperatures by replacing the body fluids with anti-freeze fluids to keep the body from freezing. Those who support cryonics believe that the person or animal can come back to life in the future and be restored to complete health and free from old age. Cryonics can be lawfully performed after an individual is proclaimed legally dead. Considering that legal death and real death are two different types of death, the supporters of cryonics believe that patients are not really dead when declared legally dead.


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Post 4

@cardsfan27 - Although all these scenarios revolve around hypotheticals, it is quite an interesting thing to consider as far as rights for these people go.

If one wants to take it a step further, they could compare laws in different states and see how drastically they may change depending on the scenarios that occur.

I know that there are states that have no set standing as far as what is considered legally dead and it all revolves around a case by case basis involving certain guidelines, like the amount of brain activity and amount of response the person gives.

This is only one broad example that I know of, but I would really like to know which states have drastically differing laws from others and if these laws legalities have been challenged in higher courts?

Post 3

@titans62 - I feel like that it all really depends on what the state laws are an either way it is definitely something that has to be really controversial.

I think back to a court case ten years ago that involved someone in a vegetative state and if they should be allowed to continue to live. The husband wanted power of attorney to allow him to pull the plug and let her die peacefully.

Now, although this was not the same as legal death, the premise is the same in whether or not it is legal to end someone's life like that say they were considered legally dead, but life functions have not ceased, say if the person were in a brain dead coma.

Post 2

@Emiliski - It is not silly for you to bring up this point, as the field has seemed to progress in the last few years and these types of debates will be brought up more often as technology continues to evolve.

As far as the present goes I really have to wonder exactly what types of rights a person has when they are declared legally dead, but are still in fact alive?

I would think that this person would have the rights of any person, except maybe have given away power of attorney, but does this necessarily mean that since they are legally considered dead the state or hospital has the right to pull the plug on the person and cease their life functions?

I know that it is probably not this simple, but it is a question to consider when one thinks of legality and what is considered to be a person with rights.

Post 1

I always thought that as far as cryonics were concerned that science has declared it impossible to freeze someone and bring them back to life and this was more or less a process in the progression of technologically cloning someone.

I do not know if this type of scientific field has changed at all, but this is what I have heard and barring in mind a lot of this is science fiction at this state, would this not mean that the person that has been frozen in a cryogenic state is in fact dead and that they are simply leaving themself to be cloned in the future?

I know this seems really silly to bring up, but I read up

on cryonics in the past, which was at least five years ago, and this is at least at the time what the point of cryonics were and if this were still the case I do not see how a person cannot be declared dead.

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