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At 18 years old, your recent high school graduate is an adult with a full array of legal rights. You may not have considered this because they’re still your child. If your son or daughter is preparing to travel to college in a few weeks (or even if classes are merely streaming online), here are the key legal documents that you should discuss with them:

  • Healthcare Proxy Including HIPAA Waiver

When your child is 18, you no longer have any rights to access their medical information – even if they remain on your health insurance. Your longtime family doctor might still talk to you, but other doctors and hospitals are going to want proof that you are authorized. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) assures medical privacy for all patients. In order for a third-party including a parent to access medical information, an individual must specifically sign an authorization for that person, waiving their HIPAA rights.

A HIPAA waiver allows for a parent to access all the medical records, but it doesn’t allow for the parent to make important healthcare decisions as they did during the child’s younger years. A full Healthcare Proxy (which can incorporate the HIPAA language) names agents to make medical decisions on behalf of an individual. That said, the authority of the agent does not override or even supplement the authority of a conscious patient. 18-year-olds are not children anymore. As agent, a parent’s decision-making power is triggered when their adult child cannot specifically express his/her own wishes to the medical care providers. Needing to act as a healthcare agent for a college-age child is every parent’s nightmare, and it is certainly reasonably uncommon for a young person to be incapacitated and unable to make their own medical choices. However, we live in uncertain times, and college students are not immune to accidents and emergencies.

A living will expresses end-of-life wishes and goes into detail about what an individual would want if his/her medical condition was terminal. It typically discusses “pulling the plug,” as well as maintaining or terminating mechanical means of keeping one alive, and activating palliative care regimes. Naturally, this is a very important document for older people. The value is that it provides the healthcare agents with some guidance, so they know how to best carry out the wishes of the patient. That said, it can be dark stuff for teenagers to discuss, and they may not want to go down this road. If that’s the case, know that a living will is not a requirement. The Healthcare Proxy document is sufficient for you to make medical decisions. If your child wants to provide you with more information and guidance later on, they can always draft a living will, or tell you their wishes.

  • FERPA Waiver

A fun detail that many parents may not be aware of is that colleges often do not readily give out grades and other academic information to parents – even if the parents are paying the tuition. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) protects such information. If your child is your dependent for tax purposes, as many college students are, then you are entitled to see their grades. But if this is not the case, or to avoid having to prove this tax status to the university, you can ask your child to simply sign a FERPA waiver, entitling you to see academic information.

Once your child turns 18, you don’t have any access to information about their bank accounts or other financial information. If your child signs a Power of Attorney, you can change this. Powers of attorney appoint agents to handle legal and financial decision-making. Most notably, they are not triggered by incapacity, in same way as Healthcare Proxies. Powers of Attorney are “durable,” meaning that they are effective at the time that they are signed, even if the principal is healthy and well, and they remain effective in the event of the principal’s disability. As such, a Power of Attorney would give you the ability to keep tabs over your college student’s finances, while they are away at school. A Power of Attorney can also be useful to allow you to sign your child’s name on a legal document, such as a vehicle registration or tax return if they are away and unavailable.

A less invasive alternative here would be to maintain a joint checking account and joint credit card with your college age child. This allows for them to learn fiscal responsibility while you review statements and set limits.

This is not intended to be legal advice.  You should contact an attorney for advice regarding your specific situation.  


Michael Wagner is senior counsel concentrating on elder law and estate planning, wills and trusts.  He conducts several Estate Planning Seminars and Webinars throughout the year.
He can be reached by phone at 866-303-9595 toll free or 845-764-9656 and by email.
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