There is no freedom quite as exhilarating as turning 18, both for children and their parents. Maybe your child is heading off to college or taking a gap-year. Maybe he or she is headed to vocational school or starting a career already. As a newly-minted adult, the world is at his or her fingertips and your child is drinking in the wondrous independence of it all. With this freedom come heavy responsibilities, shifting much of the burden from parent to child in one short day.  Parents, who have had ultimate authority when making legal decisions up to this point, can be taken by surprise by their child’s new legal status.

One such surprise can come in the form of lack of access to information related to matters for which a parent may still be financially responsible, such as a child’s medical care. After a child’s 18th birthday, parents no longer have the right to access his or her medical or financial information, even if they are paying his or her tuition, insurance, and/or medical bills. As a result, if your child is in an accident or becomes ill and needs medical attention, you will not be able to obtain details of their medical condition from the doctors without your child’s permission. Additionally, should your child be incapacitated for any reason, you will not be able to make any medical decisions on their behalf. The best way to prevent these situations is to have your child sign two documents when they turn 18: a health-care power of attorney and Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) release.

A healthcare power of attorney authorizes someone, typically a parent in this case, to act as their child’s health care agent in the case they fall ill, disabled, or incapacitated. This allows parents to make important healthcare decisions for their children in the instance they are not able to make these decisions themselves. It also gives the child the opportunity to spell out their own wishes regarding medical care in the event of a grave accident.

A HIPAA release form allows parents (or any other person named in the release) to request medical information about their child. Children are able to fine tune this release to their liking, excluding certain medical information if they so choose.

It is important to keep both of these documents handy in case they are needed in an emergency. If your child is in college, it is also important to check with your his or her student health center to be sure they do not require a separate medical release.  While it may seem like your child will always be just that, reaching 18 is an important legal milestone and it comes with shifting roles and responsibilities for a parent.  Getting certain legal documents in order ahead of time will help ease any worries in the future and prevent you from feeling helpless should the worst happen.

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