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What Eighteen Means

Legal Matters for Young Adults

Your child has turned eighteen. The prom and graduation have gone off without a hitch. Next steps like college or a full-time job have been decided on, and your son or daughter is excited about adulthood and independence. It is time to let go, but it also is a time to recognize that new rights and responsibilities can complicate things for your family.

If you’re preparing to send a young adult to college, it’s important to note that even if you pay your child’s tuition or carry his medical insurance, you cannot obtain information concerning your child’s grades, activities, or medical condition without his or her permission. This might affect your relationship. It’s best to discuss these details with your child, and have a plan in place for sharing informaiton before college starts.

Everyone, even an 18-year-old, should have a durable general power of attorney and an advance medical directive (including a living will) in place. Basic forms can be found online, or if a more custom-tailored document is desired, an attorney can prepare the documents for your adult child based on the child’s wishes.

A durable general power of attorney is a document that names an agent to act for you in decision-making and financial matters. You can choose what powers to give and what powers, if any, you wish to withhold. A power of attorney can be revoked at any time. Giving someone a power of attorney does not relinquish your right to make decisions for yourself. It simply adds another person who also can make decisions. Usually, the idea behind naming a parent as an agent is that the parent would only use the power of attorney if the child became incapacitated (such as in a car accident), or asked the parent to handle certain matters for convenience. But, the child would need to understand that the power of attorney – unless it is a springing power of attorney, which is a hard document to use – gives the parent the authority to do everything specified in the document. There must be a good understanding and trust between the parent and child as to how and when that power of attorney would be used. The child can choose anyone to be the agent, but in most instances, will choose one or both parents with a backup.

For medical purposes, it is important to have an advance medical directive. This can encompass both a medical power of attorney and a living will. In that document, the child can name someone as the child’s agent to make medical decisions, but only in the event the child cannot make them for himself. We have read and heard of the dreadful situations that arise when a child is in a coma, and no one can decide unfortunate end-of-life decisions. With an advance medical directive, the child can let his or her wishes be known, making the terrible decision less difficult for the family. It also permits the doctors to talk with the agent and give necessary medical information to the decision makers.

Parents of a child with serious disabilities have even more matters to consider as the child turns eighteen. It may be that they need to create a special needs trust if they have not done so already. Guardianship may be required or in some instances, the child may have the capacity to create powers of attorney in lieu of guardianship. This is a situation where consulting with an elder law attorney can help you make critical decisions.

Life has many turning points, and coming of age is one of those key transition points where important legal steps need to be taken.


Phoebe P. Hall is an elder law, estate planning, and family law attorney who has been practicing law since 1969. She is CEO of Hall & Hall, PLC and sits on the board of visitors for Virginia Commonwealth University. A Richmond resident, she has two children and three granddaughters.
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