Back to school, especially when you have a child beginning their last year of high school, is an exciting time. Your child's senior year up until the day you drop them off at college will be a whirlwind, with standardized tests, college visits, college applications, prom, and, at some time during the year, their 18th birthday.
The legal beginning of adulthood is an exciting time for older children because they're embarking on the next chapter of their life, which includes making decisions that will affect their own lives. Your child turning 18 also marks the time when you may no longer have access to certain information and may no longer have decision-making authority should your child become critically injured, incapacitated, or fall ill. Although to you, your 18-year-old will always be that same three-year-old toddler who relies on you for everything, in the eyes of the law, your child is an adult at the moment they turn 18. This means that your decision-making authority is severed for things both large and small.
It may sound bleak at first, but it's wise to prepare for the worst. Given our experience with COVID-19, we now know to expect the unexpected. To make sure you'll be able to make decisions on your child's behalf should the unthinkable occur, plan to have your child sign these three essential estate planning documents when they turn 18 and before they leave for college.
1. Healthcare Proxy (can also include an advance directive/living will)
A healthcare proxy, also known as a medical power of attorney, healthcare power of attorney, durable power of attorney for health care, or health care agent, gives a third party the authority to make medical decisions on one's behalf, as well as the ability to access their medical records and to discuss health care with healthcare providers. In other words, a healthcare proxy will allow you to act in your child's stead in the event they're unable to make their own medical decisions.
If your adult child becomes incapacitated and has not completed a medical power of attorney, the most likely decision-maker for your adult child's healthcare will be the physician. Although not necessarily bad, physicians must make decisions with the patient's life as the primary consideration. This means they may not pursue a risky or new healthcare procedure. If your child wants you to remain able to make decisions about their healthcare when they're in college, it's imperative they complete the healthcare power of attorney.
Your child can also sign an advance directive at this time. An advance directive allows your child to make a written statement of their wishes regarding their medical care should they be unconscious or too sick to communicate. A living will is a type of advance directive that takes effect while a person is still alive but can no longer give directions about their health care themselves. A written, legal instrument, a living will details the individual's wishes about certain medical treatments that they do or do not wish to receive.
Even at 18, your child may have very specific thoughts about their end-of-life decisions. So although the conversation may feel unpleasant or unnecessary, take a few moments to have a frank discussion with your child. They may surprise you and be more adult-like than you think.
2. HIPAA Authorization
The Privacy Rule of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, outlines the standards put in place to protect the privacy of medical records as well as other personal health information. Only individuals with legal permission may access it.
College students (18 or older) are legally adults, meaning that parents no longer have the legal right to access their children's medical records or make any medical decisions for their children in the event they're unable to make their own. This holds even if the child is still on their parents' health insurance.
Additionally, parents may be unable to find out any information related to their child's medical status, which can be particularly scary should you find yourself communicating with a hospital over the phone during a medical emergency. For example, if your adult child is in a car accident in another state while away at college, it's very unlikely that the hospital will release any information over the form without a HIPAA authorization. Parents should, therefore, request their 18-year-old to sign a HIPAA authorization BEFORE they leave for college that allows their health information to be disclosed to a third party, in this instance, Mom and Dad, even from far away.
3. Durable Power of Attorney
A durable power of attorney allows you as a third party to make many types of financial decisions on your child's behalf, including decisions about how to pay for their health care or paying/negotiating release from a lease. This can be important if you need to help a child that has become ill in a different state. A durable power of attorney can take effect immediately or in the event your child becomes incapacitated, depending on how it's drafted.
By having your adult child sign a durable power of attorney, you'll be able to access important financial information belonging to them. These can include bank statements, tax returns, even your child's bursar's statement and financial aid package. A durable power of attorney will also allow you to pay your child's bills and sign any necessary documents should they be unable.
Contact a Seattle estate planning attorney before your child leaves for college.
Many online services provide templates for these important estate planning documents. While this may sound convenient at first, the laws around healthcare proxies, HIPAA authorizations, and durable powers of attorney can vary by state, which is why consulting with a knowledgeable Washington State estate planning attorney is advantageous.
Our Seattle estate planning attorneys have vast experience drafting these documents and providing guidance about how to create a solid estate plan, including a will, beginning in young adulthood. So give yourselves and your children the gift of security with a new estate plan. Call us today.
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