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Should an Attorney Prepare a Will for a Suicidal Client?

  • October 23rd, 2006

In his October 22, 2006, column, the New York Times's resident ethicist, Randy Cohen, answers a question from an attorney who prepared a will for a woman who dropped a hint that she may be planning to commit suicide. "I don't want to ignore a cry for help," the attorney writes, "but is it appropriate to try to be her social worker '” she does see a psychiatrist '” especially considering the rules governing attorney-client confidentiality? What should I do?"

Cohen's advice to the attorney is to "do your job. If your potential client has made a reasoned choice for suicide, your task is not to dissuade her (you are, as you suggest, not a trained therapist) but to provide legal advice, to help her get her affairs in order." Cohen notes that the attorney can urge the client to discuss her decision with her psychiatrist or her family, and that the attorney can also decline to take her on as a client , but that to report the matter to anyone would violate her confidentiality.

The exception, Cohen goes on, is if the client is clearly deranged, in which case "you must seek help for her. Of course, in such a case you are forbidden to prepare her will; as you know, she must be of sound mind for that."

Cohen notes that the American Bar Association gives lawyers the option of breaking confidentiality to report a suicidal client, and that some state bar associations '” Connecticut, for example '” forbid a lawyer to prepare a will if doing so will assist a client's suicide.

Cohen's column, "The Ethicist," appears each Sunday in the New York Times Magazine. To read the full text of the Oct. 22 column click here. (Free registration required.)

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Last Modified: 10/23/2006

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