Turning age 18 means more than a party – it means a sudden end to the parent’s rights and responsibilities toward that new adult. Before turning age 18, the parents were responsible for their support, health and safety. Upon turning age 18, the law turned that responsibility over to them. If they are injured or ill, no one has the legal right to make health decisions for them . . . unless they appoint someone to serve in this role. This point was driven home to me when my own son missed the mat while pole vaulting — the day after he turned age 18. Fortunately for him, the previous week he received, and reviewed with his attorney mother, an advance health care directive, which he was able to sign on the way into surgery the following morning. Happily he healed well, and he has a great story to tell about his scars.
Planning ahead can help your adult child to have a better result too. I recommend all young adults sign an advance health care directive naming someone they trust (usually a parent) as agent to make health care decisions for them in the event they are unable to make these. In addition, I encourage them to sign a financial power of attorney, giving a parent the legal authority to assist them to pay bills, especially tuition and medical bills, until they have someone else they trust enough to serve in this vital role. While serving as a legal officer (JAG) in the military, I repeatedly discouraged young service members from naming a “buddy” or “significant other” to handle financial matters for them while they were away on a deployment, as that generally did not turn out well (more than one returned to credit problems and/or an empty bank account). Naming a parent figure generally worked out best, as that person had already proven trustworthy over time.
It is also important for the young adult to sign a HIPAA Waiver, which will allow their agents to obtain information from doctors so they can make necessary decisions, and to obtain copies of medical bills so these can be paid. Failure to grant this power can leave the financial agent unable to determine which bills to pay and which to dispute.
Wills are generally not necessary yet for a young adult. Most own less than $184,500 (the maximum value for a small probate transfer). As long as the new adult wants those assets to go to parents equally, and does not own an interest in real estate, then in the event of a death most assets will be transferred without much difficulty. To smooth this process, the new adult can also name a “pay of death” beneficiary for bank and investments accounts (like a 401k, IRA or Thrift Savings Account), as well as on military benefits forms and life insurance policies. However, if the young adult owns assets (other than pensions and life insurance) valued at more than $184,5000, owns real estate, or wants to name someone other than the parents as beneficiary, a Will is required.
If your child is turning age 18 this year, or is getting ready to leave home for college or some other next adventure, I encourage you to meet with an estate planning attorney to discuss getting these important legal documents in place. You can both then breath easier knowing they are better prepared for this next step.