During the early Roman Empire, soldiers who committed suicide were charged as deserters, a crime punishable by death. Despite the absurdity of this type of law, people throughout much of Europe faced strict suicide legislation from the fifth century through modern times. Until 1870, a man who committed suicide in the U.K. forfeited his estate and all his assets to the crown, leaving his family with nothing. As recently as the 1990s, Ireland had laws on the books criminalizing suicide [source: Adams].
Early Americans were subject to British laws, but suicide has largely been decriminalized since the American Revolution [source: Burgess-Jackson]. A few states still have statutes in place banning the practice, but there is little precedence for enforcing these laws. In fact, some states even allow physician-assisted suicide for those who wish to end their own lives through medical means. However, it's important to understand the difference between physician-assisted suicide, where the patient self-injects the fatal medication, and euthanasia, in which a physician injects the fatal dose. As of 2011, Oregon, Montana and Washington allow physician-assisted suicide, but euthanasia on people is illegal everywhere [source: St. Joseph's University].
Despite a lack of prosecutions in areas in which suicide is still technically illegal, suicide legislation can have a significant impact on civil cases. Even states without criminal statutes in place regarding suicide may have common laws that prohibit this practice based on legal precedence. These laws can prevent the family of a person who commits suicide from collecting on the deceased person's insurance policy or winning a wrongful death lawsuit against a psychiatrist or other care provider. Often, these cases require juries to determine a person's mental state posthumously. If the jury determines that the person was of sound mind, the act of suicide might be considered a crime in some areas, which would prevent the family from winning most insurance or legal battles. If the jury finds that a person was not of sound mind when taking his or her own life, then that person could not have committed a crime, and his or her family may still be able to prevail in a civil case [source: Simon et al].
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