Your Child is Turning 18 … Now What?
Few things in a child's life (or a parent's life, for that matter!) are as momentous as their 18th birthday. When they turn 18 they legally are an adult (they can vote, they can sign a contract or a lease, men must register for selective service, etc.). But aside from that, your own legal relationship with them as a parent changes. Because of that, here are two things you should do when your child turns 18 years old.
Health Care Proxy
Every child age 18 and over should have a health care proxy naming a parent (or parents) as agent. What does this mean? When a child needs medical care, the law states their parents have a right to that medical information and to make decisions about that care. But when a child turns 18, and because they are a legal adult, parents no longer have an automatic right to any of that.
Think about this … because of federal medical privacy laws, if your 18-year-old is in a car accident, the hospital can't share any information about their condition, and you have no rights to made decisions about their treatment. What parent wants to feel helpless in this situation?
To fix that, your child can execute a health care proxy. That document names someone as the child's agent (in this case you, their parent or parents) to make medical decisions if your child is ill or incapacitated. Make sure the health care proxy includes a reference to the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which allows the agent access to medical records. If your child lives or goes to college in a different state, you should consult with an attorney to determine whether you need a separate health care proxy for each state.
A properly executed health care proxy and HIPAA release provide several benefits. First, it allows your child's doctors to discuss privileged medical information with you. Second, it gives you the power to make decisions about your child's treatment. Third, it enables you to stay informed about your child's condition in case they become ill or have an accident. Finally, it gives you the authority to contact health insurance companies on their behalf.
Durable Power of Attorney
Just as important as health care is, financial matters are equally important. In this case, your child should have a durable power of attorney for financial matters.
If your child becomes incapacitated or is simply unavailable while studying in another state or participating in a study abroad program, a power of attorney lets you to access their bank accounts, file tax returns, deal with student loans or other creditors, speak to the college's financial aid office, and handle any other financial issues that may arise (like paying rent).
Even if you pay your child's college tuition, you are not legally allowed to manage your child's money or communicate with his or her financial institutions without a power of attorney. Remember, they're a legal adult and unless they give someone the power to act on their behalf, the fact that you are their parent won't be enough to give you access to that information or the power to help them.
Your estate planning attorney can easily create a durable power of attorney document that can be used for contacting all financial institutions.
What if You Don't Act?
If your adult child is incapacitated and does not have either a health care proxy or power of attorney in place, then your only option may be to petition a court to obtain a guardianship and/or conservatorship.
This is a long, expensive and public process that may not be resolved before critical medical or financial decisions must be made. In contrast, these basic documents are straightforward and can be prepared by your attorney quickly and at a much lower cost than a court proceeding.
Lastly, it's important to note that while some of these forms are available online at little or no cost, there is no guarantee that they will be accurate or will meet the requirements of the state where your adult child lives. The better option is to instead go to a local attorney who can advise you directly.
Important: This article does not contain any legal or tax advice. You should always consult your attorney, accountant or other professional advisors before changing or implementing any tax, investment or estate planning strategy.