Op-Ed

How can a college parent maintain key legal rights?

Posted

Your 18-year-old has headed off to college. Despite what you may feel, she will now be considered an adult in the eyes of the law and the university. Your legal rights to make decisions on behalf of your child change entirely the moment she turns 18, so it’s important that you’re prepared for what this means now that she’s no longer at home.

You might still pay for everything in your child’s life, but the reality is that you no longer have complete access to his financial, educational or health records. All is not lost, however: With a little bit of planning, you’ll be able to establish some legal authority to make important financial and health decisions for him until he is entirely independent.

With the fall semester in full swing, it would be wise to set up a health care proxy and power of attorney to be prepared for anything that happens along the way. You may be asking yourself, what’s a health care proxy, and why do I need one when my child is perfectly healthy? It’s the same reason why you have insurance and (we hope) a will prepared: Unforeseen events will always happen. It’s wise to take every precaution now so that in the case of an emergency, you can tackle things head-on.

The health care proxy will allow your child to appoint you or another trusted adult to make medical decisions for her in the event that she is unable to herself. It should include language consistent with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, which would enable a doctor to disclose vital medical information to you. An illness can develop more quickly than you think, and when you are, in some cases, hundreds of miles away from your child, you’ll want information as quickly as possible.

A few years ago, a couple dropped off their excited 18-year-old daughter at a high-ranking university across the country. They stayed in a nearby hotel for a few days to make sure she had settled in before making their way back home. Three weeks later, a resident assistant called to inform them that she had been taken to a hospital with a serious case of the flu. The R.A. was no longer there, because she had to get back to her shift, and their daughter was too ill to talk on the phone. Those well-meaning parents hadn’t thought to set up a health care proxy, leaving the doctors and nurses unable to disclose any information on her status, citing strict HIPAA laws that protect patient confidentiality.

The parents frantically called their lawyer on their way to the airport. They were leaving on the first plane they could book, and wanted his help to gain access to their daughter’s medical information. He prepared a health care proxy for them, but without their daughter’s signature, the papers were useless until they landed and had her sign in the presence of witnesses. In the end, she recovered after a week in the hospital and two more weeks of bedrest, but the ordeal would have been much less fraught with anxiety if her parents had had immediate access to her medical information.

And your child’s physical health isn’t the only contingency you should prepare for; his financial health should be given equal consideration. If he decides to study abroad, a durable power of attorney will enable you to wire money from his account to him or even sign important documents — such as an apartment lease — in his absence. While these may seem trivial now, you don’t want to be stuck in a last-minute situation, powerless to help.

You may not think it’s necessary to be able to transfer money from your child’s account, but another story illustrates how important the power of attorney can be. A boy studying in Spain during his sophomore year was granted a prestigious internship for his return to the states. Since he would be starting the program just a few days after he got back, he needed to sign a lease in advance. Unfortunately, he couldn’t complete the documents electronically for the summer sublet he found online, and overnighting the paperwork internationally was too expensive for him. If he had designated his mother as power of attorney before he left for Spain, she would have been able to sign the documents for him.

All of these legal preparations will make your life infinitely easier, so put them on your to-do list.

Patricia Marcin, an estate and tax attorney, is a partner at the firm Farrell Fritz in Uniondale.