Once a teen reaches 18, it’s natural to think that many things will change if they go off to college. But things will change even if your teen isn’t leaving the family nest. On that day, they become adults in the eyes of the law.

Before then, parents and legal guardians had the legal right by default to make vital decisions about their teen’s finances or medical care. After 18, that’s no longer the case without their written consent.

However, few 18-year-olds are thinking about what emergencies might befall them. And financial and medical institutions can’t make exceptions simply because “they just turned 18.” The best course of action is to work with your teen before their birthday, following a checklist that includes the following documents:

  • Durable Power of Attorney
  • Health Care Proxy (Medical Power of Attorney)
  • HIPAA Authorization
  • Living Will/Advance Health Care Directive
  • Power of Attorney for Digital Assets
  • FERPA Release Form, if applicable

You will want to convey to your teen that the reason for putting these documents in place is not so you can intrude on their privacy. Instead, those are the legal documents you will need as parents to intervene in an emergency.

Essential documents to consider

Durable Power of Attorney: Should your adult child become incapacitated or unable to manage their financial and legal affairs, you will not be able to do so unless you are named in a durable power of attorney. For example, this document authorizes parents to manage bank accounts, pay bills, and deal with insurance companies. A durable power of attorney isn’t only needed in dire cases but might be required if your child is traveling or studying abroad and needs something legal done urgently back home. Note that a nondurable power of attorney ends upon incapacitation, but a durable power of attorney continues in effect.

Health Care Proxy (Medical Power of Attorney): An accident that renders your child incapable of making medical decisions can happen at any age. However, once your child turns 18, you no longer have the legal right to make medical decisions as a parent. A health care proxy (or medical power of attorney) designates a trusted individual to make medical decisions for the person creating the proxy once they are incapacitated and can’t communicate their wishes. This document is the minimum legal insurance you should set up; without it, decisions may fall to a court-appointed guardian.

HIPAA Authorization: If it becomes necessary for you to make medical decisions about an adult teen, you may not be able to access protected medical information from health care providers and communicate with providers about your adult child’s medical condition or treatment without a HIPAA authorization. This simple document means no time is lost determining if you can have access.

Living Will/Advance Health Care Directive: A living will differ from a last will and testament. It outlines your teen’s wishes regarding medical treatment – such as the use of life-sustaining measures – should they become incapacitated and can’t communicate their decisions. Preparing this document entails some very sobering conversations with a teen just starting out in life. If ever needed, it guides providers and family members alike to ensure they reflect your teen’s preferences, particularly in the case of end-of-life care.

Power of Attorney for Digital Assets: These days, much of a person’s information is embedded in social media, email or online platforms. Circumstances exist where access to that information can become urgent, say, in a disappearance, kidnapping, incapacitating health event or loss of life. A power of attorney naming you can grant you the authority to manage your adult teen’s digital accounts and assets. 

FERPA Release Form: If you are paying for your teen’s education, it’s natural to want to see how they’re doing at school. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA) is a federal privacy law designed to protect parents and children from schools disclosing a student’s education records to third parties, including grades, disciplinary records and financial information. Schools that don’t comply with FERPA risk losing federal funding – but parochial and private schools may not be included.

Once your teen turns 18, those protections are transferred to the teen. As an unintended consequence, you need authorization from your teen to access information, which can take the form of a FERPA release. FERPA is governed by Federal law and applies across all states, but the form should be signed and submitted to the specific educational institution in question. 

Estate-related documents for over-18 young adults

Whether your teen is leaving town or staying nearby, turning 18 also holds other implications. The absence of properly executed documents may block you from acting when necessary. The following estate-related documents should be considered, possibly with the help of an estate planning attorney:

  • Last Will and Testament
  • Trust Documents, if applicable
  • Beneficiary Designations

Last Will and Testament: This document states how your teen’s assets should be distributed in the event of their death. Even if they don’t have significant assets, dying intestate (without a will) means state law will dictate. Having a will can help avoid legal complications at a devastating time.

Trust Documents, if applicable: If you have a trust set up for your teen’s benefit, revisit the trust details to ensure that your teen understands their rights and responsibilities under the trust. Also, check that nothing needs to be changed to reflect their newfound adulthood.

Benefit Designations: Revisiting financial accounts with designated beneficiaries – such as bank accounts, life insurance policies and inherited retirement accounts – helps ensure these assets are transferred smoothly according to your teen’s wishes. 

Applicability of documents across state lines 

Some documents might be valid nationwide, but several – such as a will, health care proxy or durable power of attorney – will likely vary with state laws. Also, some states will require documents to be notarized, and others won’t.

While the documents shouldn’t vary significantly from state to state, you will want to be sure their language complies with the specific laws and requirements of any state where your teen resides. For this reason, you will want an attorney involved in their preparation. 

Practical tips around documents and young adults

All the listed documents can help ensure that your teen and family are prepared for unexpected events. Putting the documents in place will result in discussions being held for the first time – possibly marking the passage of your teen into adulthood. The following tips can keep these efforts fresh and effective:

Access to Documents: You, your teen and anyone else named in documents should have copies, making them easily accessible in an emergency. However, signed originals should not be kept in an inaccessible safe deposit box, for example. You might want to store electronic copies in a secure, easily accessible location.

Regular Updates: All documents are amendable and revocable. Set a schedule to review and update these documents regularly, especially if there are changes in your teen’s health, financial situation, legal status or state of residence.

Emergency Contacts: Be sure your teen knows who to contact in an emergency and that their college has updated emergency contact information if they’re away at school.

In summary, having these documents in place can help ensure that your adult-age teens are legally protected wherever they are and that you can assist them effectively in times of need. Working with professionals – such as attorneys, estate planners and financial planners – can help ensure those documents are appropriately drafted and effective across state lines, if applicable.

At WH Cornerstone, we realize you can’t know when life will throw you a curve ball, including an illness or accident involving one of your children. Many of the rights and processes you’ve taken for granted since their birth will disappear when each child reaches age 18.

Whether your adult child goes off to college or stays home, we can provide the peace of mind that you can act quickly and intervene effectively when needed. It’s part of what we call Curve Ball Life Planning™.

We also know how difficult some conversations can be, especially when you’re discussing the possibility of illnesses, accidents and death with someone who is just entering adulthood – full of life and without any of the cares that come with age.

We have learned how to facilitate such discussions and convert their output into documents and preparations in case they’re ever needed. For help with this process, schedule a call with us. We’re here to help.

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