Most young adults think they are invincible. But the reality is that anyone can become seriously ill or be injured in an accident or a random act of violence at any time. Far too many of us know the tragedy of a promising young life that was abruptly cut short.
Once a child turns eighteen, parents lose the legal ability to make decisions for their child or even to find out basic information. Learning you will not be able to see your college student’s grades without your child’s permission can be mildly frustrating. But a medical emergency can take this frustration to a completely different level. The parents (or a sibling or another person) will probably have to go to court and ask for permission to obtain information about the student’s medical condition, make decisions about treatment, and have access to the student’s financial records and accounts.
The following legal documents, prepared by an estate planning attorney, allow you to name another person to make medical and financial decisions for you if you are unable to make them for yourself. The person you select should be someone you know and trust, and a candid discussion should occur now so that the designated individual knows what your wishes would be. These documents are not expensive, and everyone over the age of eighteen should have them.
Parents should consider scheduling a visit with their estate planning attorney after each child’s eighteenth birthday. Having these documents in place does not mean anyone expects to use them, but everyone will be glad to have them should they be needed.
In the Event of Incapacity
- Durable power of attorney for health care. This document gives another person (often called a healthcare agent, proxy, or surrogate) legal authority to make healthcare decisions if you are unable to make them for yourself.
- Living will. This accompanying healthcare document lets your healthcare agent and medical providers know the kind of life support you would want if you have a terminal illness, injury, or condition, or are in an irreversible, permanent vegetative state. There are limitations, which vary by state, on how much you can control these end-of-life decisions.
- Durable financial power of attorney. This document gives another person (often called an agent or attorney-in-fact) legal authority to manage your assets without court interference. (A regular power of attorney ends at incapacity; a durable power of attorney remains valid through incapacity.) In some states, your attorney can write this document in such a way that it does not take effect until you become incapacitated (called a springing power of attorney).
- Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) authorization. This authorization gives your medical providers permission to discuss your medical information with others, including family members and other loved ones.
In the Event of Death
Most young adults do not have substantial assets, so a simple will may be all that is needed initially. However, having a will does not mean that your assets will avoid probate; a fully funded revocable trust is necessary to do that. For a small estate, probate avoidance (and the time and money saved) can be very meaningful. In a will or a revocable trust, the young adult will designate who should receive his or her assets and belongings in the event of death and who should be responsible for carrying out those instructions. In the absence of a will or revocable trust, the laws of the state in which the young adult lives will determine this, and the outcome may not be what anyone would have wanted.
After the Documents Have Been Signed
A little housecleaning may be in order. It is important that the people you designate in these documents know where to find financial records and passwords if needed. Tidy up your computer’s desktop. Make a list of accounts and passwords (including your computer’s password), print the list, and put it in a safe place; a hard copy is important in case your computer is lost or stolen. If you use an online backup system, be sure to include it. Do not forget online accounts and social media. Finally, update your documents as your life changes.