Eighteen and Alone: The Legal Risks of Independence, 07/30/2009

Your child has just turned 6,570 days old, and on the surface nothing seems to have changed. He still mixes the reds with the whites in the wash—she drove off with her book bag on the roof of her car again. But, disconcerting as it may be, for all legal purposes, turning 18 makes your child an adult.

Even more disturbing is the fact that without proper legal safeguards, you may no longer have any say in their medical care or financial matters. Should something terrible befall your child, you would be powerless to help them.

Each year, approximately 20,000 college-age kids die in the United States. What sets this population apart from the rest of the country is that almost half of these deaths are accident-related. In general, our kids are not having heart attacks or getting lung cancer—instead they are more likely to be crashing cars or suffering other accidents.

I know it’s difficult to even consider the possibility of something bad happening to your child. No one sits around imagining such scenarios. But the unpleasant truth is that no matter how responsible, how healthy, or how young your child is, they are at risk.

We try to protect the things we value. You buy homeowners insurance to protect your house from natural disasters, fire, and other catastrophes. The odds are pretty slim that your house will be destroyed by lightning, but because your home is important to you, you protect it. Well, the same logic applies to your children. You have every expectation that they’ll be safe at college, but because you love and care about them, protecting them in case the unexpected happens just makes sense.

Here’s why you need to act: On April 14, 2003, the privacy rule of HIPAA (Heath Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) went into effect. The intent of this act is to prevent anyone from accessing and abusing an individual’s personal medical information.

Fortunately and unfortunately, this privacy applies to your 18-year-old as well. The downside, of course, is that if your son or daughter has an accident or is incapacitated in some way, you may not even be able to discuss their medical situation with a doctor because it may violate HIPAA. In order to prevent this, you need your child’s legal consent to access their medical records and make decisions for them, based on their own wishes, in the event of an emergency. Specifically, you need a HIPAA Authorization Form and a Health Care Directive completed for them.

Another important legal safeguard is a Property Power of Attorney. This is especially helpful if your child travels abroad. It allows you to handle any unforeseen issues that may arise with your child’s car, apartment, student loans, etc.

To be clear, these documents and safeguards do not in any way allow the designated agent to “interfere” with their child’s medical care or financial decisions. These are simply emergency measures to protect the interests of your newly-minted “adult” child.

Becoming an adult is an exciting rite-of-passage for every young person, but with independence comes an important set of responsibilities. Getting these legal matters sorted out may be the most important birthday present you ever give to your child. Contact us at Morris Hall to find out how you can protect your children.

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