A Gift Worth Dying For?: Debating the Volitional Nature of Suicide in the Law of Personal Property
Faulkner University, Jones School of Law
January 7, 2010
This article examines the debate in personal property law over the question whether suicide is ever a volitional act and the attendant issue whether a gift causa mortis ought to be enforced when made conditional upon an act of suicide. Scholars have missed substantial doctrinal changes in the law of gifts causa mortis during the last thirty-three years. These changes bear upon other contested, legal issues, such as the wisdom of legalizing assisted suicide.
The article tests the modern rule that all gifts made in contemplation of suicide are enforceable and the assumption on which this rule is predicated, namely that all suicides are wholly non-volitional acts, products of mental or emotional infirmities. It tests the assumption against human experience, other bodies of law, and the best contemporary learning of psychology and sociology.
The article also offers a new understanding of the traditional rule (voiding gifts conditioned upon suicide), answers a strong doctrinal criticism, and attempts to fashion a more advanced version of the traditional rule, which avoids the shortcomings of both the traditional rule and the modern rule. It posits a stronger doctrinal basis for the traditional rule: strict adherence to the Statute of Wills, to which gifts causa mortis constitutes exceptions, best protects the donor’s intentions.
The article examines a stronger policy basis for the traditional rule, namely that the traditional rule, like parallel doctrines in tort law, criminal law, and insurance law, affirms the intrinsic value of each human person. This teaching helps promote a cultural commitment to the dignity of all human persons and informs contemporary debates on more complex problems, such as the question whether our nation recognizes a fundamental right to assisted suicide. This article concludes with a proposed revision of the traditional rule that is intended to reflect and advance contemporary learning about suicide.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 60
Keywords: personal property, gifts causa mortis, suicide, volition
Date posted: January 8, 2010