Q.  Do I have the “right to die” once my body could only be kept alive by mechanical means?

A.  Yes.  Most states have enacted some form of legislation described as a “living will,” “natural death,” or “right to die” statute.  The common element in these states is that if a doctor relies upon a written statement, properly executed, which states that a person does not wish his life sustained by artificial or mechanical means after his body reaches a medical level of being unable to support itself, then the doctor would be immune from accusations of criminal and/or unprofessional conduct for stopping treatment on the individual.

Florida passed similar legislation on May 29,1984.  The common law right of bodily self-determination has long been recognized.  Justice Cardozo once said, “Every human being of adult years and sound mind has a right to determine what to do with his body.”

Some states hold that decisions to terminate life support systems must be submitted to the court for its determination of what is best for the patient.

The most significant effect of a living will in states that have not passed right to die legislation would be that it would serve as a persuasive document directed toward the family and physician by expressing the person’s desires as to whether or not he wished to be mechanically supported when there was no hope of survival and the illness was terminal.  In some cases, doctors may be liable for damages and costs when they expressly disregard a person’s wishes and continue extraordinary medical treatment against the patient’s wishes.

A living will can be useful for family members who may be in a dilemma as to what course of action they should take at a moment of crisis or decision-making.  Written instructions as to death wishes ease the burden of family members and doctors.

A living will must have two or more witnesses and it should be notarized.  If properly executed, it may be valid even if a person is declared incompetent, if the person was competent at its signing.  Witnesses should be unrelated to the declarant and not a potential heir to the estate.

In states that recognize living wills, oral revocations as well as written revocations are recognized.

In summary, living wills are formally recognized in Florida.  If one was in existence and a decision had to be made regarding extraordinary medical support or life-sustaining measures, including feeding and hydration tubes, such a document would be used by family and medical personnel to help in the decision-making process.  Recent Florida law has expanded to include when death is imminent and the patient being in a vegetative or unconscious state. A living will should be considered as a supplement to your present will or trust and should be updated to show current intent at least every three years.