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Your Child Is Heading Off to College ― Do You Have All Your Legal Docs in a Row?

An estate planning lawyer shares her tips for college-bound students

Published on: September 27, 2019

College student

The college admissions tests have been passed, the campus tours taken, scholarship applications are filled out, and the maze of the high school years is behind you. Your child has now chosen a college, you have come to terms with the cost, fall semester classes have been selected, living arrangements finalized, and dorm room shopping has begun. As parents, we have attended college planning, financial aid planning, and college-admitted student sessions. But have we done everything necessary to make sure our child’s watershed transition into adulthood is as secure as possible?

As our graduates prepare for this next exciting educational adventure, parents likewise need to ensure that they have everything in place for this transition. What happens if your child becomes ill? What happens if your child needs help navigating or accessing financial documents while straddled between home (or at least what has been home!) and their college home? All of a sudden, the same worries and what-ifs related to your child’s health and security become magnified through a lens of distance and impending adulthood. Many parents might not fully understand or be prepared for the legal implications of their child turning 18.

After experiencing my daughter’s college application process and subsequent decision-making, her high school graduation and the start of her first college semester, I offer a to-do list, one I wish I had had in front of me during her senior year of high school. These are tasks we scrambled to complete at the end of the summer before she headed off to her first college semester, and tasks we continued to finalize after her first semester because of said scramble.

As an estate planning attorney, I hope that this list eliminates, or at least reduces, the “summer scramble” for parents and provides greater peace of mind as they return home from that first college drop-off.

No time like the present: Get started now

Here are the documents your college-bound student should have in place prior to the start of their first semester away, and what legal protections those docs provide.

Health-care power of attorney

This document authorizes a designated person (in this case, a parent) to be notified of a health-care crisis and given access to the health-care records of their child. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) establishes privacy rights to prohibit disclosure of this information without a signed release, even if that person is the child’s parent.  

A power of attorney form authorizes parents (who no longer hold this right after a child turns 18) or other designated agents the ability to assist in health-care matters when necessary.

Health-care directive

A health-care directive is a written document that informs and describes the health-care decisions that a young adult would like to be made in the event that they are unable to express their health-care choices or preferences. It also allows them to name an agent if they want someone else to decide for them.

Financial power of attorney

A financial power of attorney is a document that grants a parent the legal authority to act on the behalf of their child in financial matters in the event that the child becomes incapacitated or is unable to make those decisions themselves. It authorizes the designated agent to manage digital assets, including all online accounts and digitally created content, when assistance is necessary.

A will

A will addresses end-of-life considerations. (See this article for more information about creating a will and other tips for estate planning.) Important note: If your child will be attending an out-of-state school, make sure all documents meet the signature requirements of the state where they will be attending university.

What else may be missing?

Putting these documents in place is task number one, but here’s a second checklist, this one describing the steps your college-bound child should take to ensure the documents are valid.

Health-care checklist:

At home

  • Have your child transfer their primary health care from their pediatrician’s office to an adult provider. File a copy of the health-care power of attorney with this provider’s office.
  • Have your child consider granting proxy access to their MyChart account or other digital health-care account to their designated health-care agent.

At college

  • Check with the college’s health clinic: Does it have its own form for your college-bound child to sign? Is the clinic form consistent with your health-care power of attorney document? File a copy of the health-care power of attorney document with the clinic.
  • Locate a local urgent care clinic near the college, one where your child would go to receive after-hours health care. File a copy of the health-care power of attorney document with this clinic. Have your child check to see if their online health-care account from home will sync with the urgent care clinic’s system so that providers at the clinic are able to access your child’s prior medical history.
  • Note the contact information of three people in your child’s college dorm, preferably their roommate, a resident assistant or hall director and one other friend. Also, make sure these same individuals have emergency contact information for your child.
  • Make sure your child has a physical copy of their health insurance card and understands what information it contains and how to use it.

Financial checklist:

  • Have your child check with the financial institution with which they have an account. File the financial power of attorney document or complete the financial institution’s specific power of attorney form. (If this is required, be sure it is consistent with your general financial power of attorney document.)
  • Have your child complete a digital asset inventory and set up a password manager so that their designated financial agent can access accounts if necessary.

Educational records access:

  • Have your child complete and submit to the college a Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) form to designate who has rights to access their educational records. (Even if parents are paying for a child’s schooling, once that child turns 18, he or she has the right to designate who has access to their educational records.)

And this one is for extra credit: Encourage your child to register to vote!

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