Legal Dictionary

legal death

Definition of legal death

Further reading

Legal death is a legal pronouncement by a qualified person that further medical care is not appropriate and that a patient should be considered dead under the law. The specific criteria used to pronounce legal death are variable and often depend on certain circumstances in order to pronounce a person legally dead. Controversy is often encountered due to the conflicts between moral and ethical values.

The increasing demand for organs for organ transplantation is a major focus of concern due to the increasing technological advances in medical equipment. These advances are causing further questions on the actual definition of death. With so many questions revolving around the issues of legal death, declaring a person legally dead in many cases becomes far more than just a medical concern as it involves ethical concerns as well.

Brain death

One of the scenarios in which legal death is usually pronounced is when a person is considered brain dead. Brain death is considered an irreversible coma. A patient is diagnosed as brain dead when there is no detectable brain activity. In the United States, brain death is legal in every state with exceptions for New York and New Jersey, which require that that a person's lungs and heart must also have stopped before it can be declared they are really dead. Brain death is not the same as a vegetative state, but the two are often confused. A vegetative state is when a person can seem to be awake, have their eyes open, yet they are not aware of anything and their brains are not functioning. A lot of families will argue that their loved one moves, or is responding to them. It is common for younger patients to be able to live a very long time in a vegetative state, and if kept alive by artificial means, "these patients typically die of pneumonia, urinary tract infections, or sepsis related to skin breakdown." Well known younger patients who were diagnosed as PVS are the central figure of the Terri Schiavo case, Nancy Cruzan, and Karen Ann Quinlan. All three of these women were in a vegetative state and never regained consciousness. In each case, loved ones of the patients went to court in order for their family member to be allowed to die without being kept alive by artificial nutrition. These cases are related to the controversial right to die.

With time the definition of legal death has been reexamined and altered as our technology enhances. The definition of death used to include only cessation of heart and lungs but now after further development it has been altered so that it can include permanent and irreversible brain failure. By June 1987, 39 states had also adopted this law into action to include brain death. Changing the definition will always bring up new ethical concerns; especially when it involves organ transplants.


  1. Wiktionary. Published under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License.


1.     lex fori
2.     landed property
3.     lex situs
4.     respondent
5.     default judgment
6.     tort law
7.     living will
8.     lex causae
9.     law
10.     salacious