As my daughter prepares to graduate from high school this month and start the next phase of her life, I started to think about what it means to turn 18 and become a ‘legal adult’. In a few short months, she will be moving away from home and attending a university out of state. She’s ready, but we as her parents need to prepare her and ourselves for what it means for her to be a ‘legal adult’ and out in the world.
Life has many milestones and turning age 18 is one of them. One day the world treats you as a child, and the next day, you are deemed an adult under the law. Becoming a legal adult means that you may do many more things without parental consent or involvement, such as travel on your own, vote, get married, buy stocks, buy real estate, enter into a contract, and serve on a jury. It also means that you will be held criminally and civilly responsible as an adult not as a juvenile. If you are a male, you must register with the Selective Service (i.e. draft). Of course, there are other familiar privileges of turning 18 that I’ll leave off the list.
What turning 18 means to my daughter is that she will now be legally responsible for her medical care, legal matters, and education. We as her parents are no longer in charge and have the final say in matters that affect her. Many parents assume this access and/or ability to make decisions extends well past the age of 18. It seems natural because parents still support their young adults for the most part, paying for college, medical insurance, car insurance, and other living expenses. Perhaps their cell phone, so that they can call home and stay safe. Young adults often still live at home on a part-time or full-time basis.
A common misconception by parents is that “I paid for it or I’m the parent, therefore I have access.” Medical providers, insurance companies, financial institutions, and educational institutions do not follow that train of thought. They are legally obligated to treat 18-year-olds like all other adults. Parents need permission from their young adult to gain access and remain a part of the decision-making.
So, how do you prepare for the next stage of your young adult’s life? In the same way that all adults do – prepare the necessary legal documents.
While young adults may not need extensive estate planning, it’s wise to have them put in place a Health Care Directive and Power of Attorney. In a Health Care Directive, the young adult appoints a parent or other trusted individual to act on their behalf for health care matters when they are unable to act or communicate. The person appointed has the legal authority to talk to health care providers, express wishes and expectations for treatment, consent to care or decline care, and to have access to medical records.
In a Power of Attorney, the young adult appoints an attorney-in-fact to act on their behalf in financial, business, legal, and real estate matters. An attorney-in-fact can ‘step into the shoes’ of the young adult and sign documents and take other actions on their behalf. A Power of Attorney can be very useful when a young adult needs assistance with bills, vehicles, contracts and other financial and legal matters while they are away at school or in the military.
If your young adult is headed to a college or university, determine the level of access to their educational records you are permitted and your young adult is comfortable with. A college or university typically has specific requirements and documents that must be placed in the student’s file to allow the parent or other named person to have access those records.
Turning 18 is an exciting time as it opens up a world of possibilities for a young adult. At the same the same time, it can be a challenging time for parents as they help their young adult learn to navigate the world away from home. By discussing needs of your young adult and preparing the right legal documents, embracing this milestone can be less complicated and a little less scary. I’ll be taking my own advice and putting a Health Care Directive and Power of Attorney in place for my daughter before she leaves for school.
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