For the first eighteen years of our children’s lives, you have the authority to make all major decisions for them, including financial and medical ones. So accustomed are you to this state of affairs, that it may not occur to you that when they wake up on their eighteenth birthday, the legal landscape has shifted. Only you may not realize it until the ground falls out from under your feet, and theirs. They may look the same and act the same, but they are now legal adults, and your power to make decisions for them is in the past. Do you need a power of attorney for an adult child?
Yes, absolutely. Like accident insurance, it is the kind of thing you hope never to need. If there is no event that triggers the need, you may never feel the lack of it. But if you do need it, the need is likely to be sudden. And if you don’t have it, you will suddenly realize just how important it was.
Powers of Attorney and Adult Children
You don’t get a power of attorney over your adult child so that you can continue to make their medical and financial decisions as you did when they were younger. Now that they are an adult, they need to learn to be responsible for their own care and finances. You get a power of attorney in case they are unable to make decisions and take action on their own behalf.
Consider these possible scenarios:
- Your 18 year old daughter goes on a spring break trip to Florida with college friends. While there, she is involved in a car accident and is taken to the hospital unconscious.
- Your unmarried son, in his 20s, suffers a severe head injury at his construction job, rendered unconscious, and is rushed to the hospital.
- Your daughter is in her 30s and just got divorced. She suffers a stroke that has left her incapacitated and unable to communicate.
As a loving parent, your first impulse is to contact your child’s medical providers for information on their condition so you can help them. But as a legal adult, your child has rights, including the right to privacy about their medical information. It doesn’t matter how much you love them or how obviously distraught you are; your child’s doctors cannot release that information to you without your child’s consent, and your child is now in a position where they cannot grant that consent.
Meanwhile, while your child languishes in the hospital, and you try to participate in their care to the extent that you are able, their rent and bills may be going unpaid, leading to potential financial disaster if and when they regain their health.
If this sounds like a nightmare scenario to you, take a step back and realize that it is easily avoidable—IF your child executes a financial power of attorney, a medical power of attorney, and a HIPAA release (which grants you the right to receive their medical information).
How to Protect Your Adult Children in Case of Emergency
A HiPAA release allows your child’s medical care providers the right to share medical information with a person or persons they designate. These forms can be limited; for instance, your college-age daughter may not want you to know she’s in therapy or getting birth control. But the release will allow medical providers to share relevant information with you in case of emergency, so that you can make the necessary medical decisions.
The medical power of attorney grants you the legal authority to make those decisions. Ideally, you and your child would also have discussed preferences around end-of-life care, should that become relevant. (If it seems uncomfortable or ghoulish to bring this up with your young, vibrant child, make it a two-way conversation. After all, you should have these documents, too, and as adults, they may someday be responsible for making medical decisions on your behalf.)
Last but not least, you should have a financial power of attorney that lets you conduct financial business and transactions for your child while they are unable to. Like a medical power of attorney, a financial power of attorney can be “springing,” meaning it doesn’t take effect unless and until it is needed.
If you don’t have powers of attorney for an adult child, you may need to go to court and get a guardianship. This is less than ideal, being both more expensive and time-consuming than having your child grant you power of attorney. And when your child is in a health care crisis, consulting a lawyer and going to court is stress you don’t need.