Legal issues when your child turns 18
18 is a momentous birthday. Your child can register to vote! Your son (but not your daughter) must register for the Selective Service. Depending on which jurisdiction you live in, your child may become entitled to unilateral control over that UGMA/UTMA (Uniform Gift to Minors Act/Uniform Transfer to Minors Act) custodial account that you funded years ago.
You have spent years managing things for your child. But now, your signature is no longer adequate, and you no longer have access to your child’s health information or authority to make medical decisions. Your son is heading off to college, the mail brings dozens of credit card applications addressed to him, and you think you overheard one of his friends mention “skydiving.” What if something happens to him or her?
At 18, your child may enter into contracts and sign legal documents for herself. As she becomes an adult, she may wish to give you some access to information and authority to make decisions in order to have your continued help. For example, she can put in place a HIPAA release authorization form, an advance health care directive, and a durable general power of attorney. These documents are relatively straightforward and typically do not involve complicated legal drafting.
This is typically a one-page form whereby your child may authorize health care professionals to release his or her medical information to another person (i.e., you). Armed with this document, you can get the doctor, hospital, or student health center to talk to you. The Health and Human Services website has additional HIPPA information.
This may be two separate documents (a living will and a power of attorney for health care) or a combined form that serves both purposes. The power of attorney for health care allows your child to designate an agent (i.e., you) to make medical decisions for your child if she is unable to make them herself or communicate them herself to her health care providers (very helpful in the event of that skydiving accident you’re worrying about). The living will is a statement of your child’s wishes with regard to life-sustaining medical treatment, artificial nutrition and hydration, and pain management if a situation arises in which your child is in extremis and death is imminent.
This document addresses only property (as opposed to medical) decisions. Your child (the “principal”) grants authority to an agent (the “attorney-in-fact”) to act on his behalf with regard to financial decisions, whether or not your child is incapacitated. A broadly written power of attorney grants the attorney-in-fact authority to manage the principal’s money, make investment decisions, enter into contracts on the principal’s behalf, sign checks drawn on the principal’s checking account, file claims (e.g., health insurance) for the principal, and obtain information (e.g., college transcripts!) to which the principal is herself entitled.
The law recognizes your child as an adult at 18. With a little proper planning, you and your child can ease the transition. You can’t cast her vote for her or go through basic training for him if he’s drafted, but, with your newly adult child’s cooperation, you can ensure that you will have continued access to information and authority to make decisions when your help is needed.