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3 Steps to Take When Your Child Turns 18 — Massachusetts


If you are a parent of a teenager, you may already feel as though you are losing control of your child’s life.  This is legally true once your child reaches the age of 18 because the state considers her to be an adult with the legal right to govern her own life.

Up until your child reaches 18, you are absolutely entitled to access his medical records and to make decisions regarding the course of her treatment.  And, hiss financial affairs are your financial affairs.  This changes once your child reaches the age of 18, because your now adult child is legally entitled to his privacy and you no longer have the same level of access or authority over his financial, educational and medical information.  As long as all is well, this can be fine.  However, it’s important to plan for the unexpected and for your child to set up an estate plan that at least includes a health care proxy, power of attorney and a HIPAA release, just in case he becomes incapacitated, whether temporarily or permanently.

1.  Health Care Proxy

Should your child suffer a medical crisis resulting in her inability to communicate for herself, doctors and other medical professionals may refuse to speak with you and allow you to make medical decisions for your child. You may be forced to hire an attorney to petition to have you appointed as your child’s legal guardian by a court. At this time of crisis, your primary concern is to ensure your child is taken care of and you do not need the additional burden of court proceedings and associated legal costs.  Through a health care proxy, your child can designate who she would prefer to make medical decisions in the event she is unable to convey her wishes.

2.  Durable Power of Attorney

Like medical information, your 18-year-old child’s finances are also private. Without a durable power of attorney, you cannot access his bank accounts or credit cards to make sure bills are being paid. This can sometimes be important when dealing with colleges and universities, who may be happy to receive your tuition payments without giving you any rights to negotiate temporary withdrawals from school or other matters. If you need to access financial accounts, in hopes of managing or resolving any problem, you may be forced to seek the court’s appointment as conservator of your child.

Absent a crisis, a power of attorney can also be helpful in issues that may arise when your child is away at college or traveling. For example, if your child is traveling and an issue comes up where she cannot access her accounts, a durable power of attorney would give you or another trusted person the authority to manage the issue. An alternative may be to encourage your child to consider a joint account with you but this is rarely recommended. The implications, whether on tax returns, financial aid applications, creditor issues, untimely death, etc, could have some unintended consequences.

3.  HIPAA Release

Under the Health Information Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, once your child turns 18, her health records are now between her and her health care provider. The HIPAA laws prevent you from even getting medical updates in the event your child is unable to communicate her wishes to have you involved.  Without a HIPAA release, you may have many obstacles before receiving critically needed information, including whether your adult child has even been admitted to a particular medical facility.

While the health care proxy listed above does give the agent the power to access medical records as well as make health care decisions, it has two potential limitations. First, the health care proxy only takes effect when a doctor determines your child is incapacitated. It doesn’t allow the agent access when the patient is ill or injured, but not incapacitated. Second, you can only name one agent at a time under a health care proxy. Under a HIPAA release, your child can name as many people as she wants. For instance, your daughter may want to name her mother as her primary agent, but to give both her parents the right to access medical records and exchange information with health care providers.

While you’re at it, make sure you have all of these documents in place too.

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