As fall quickly approaches, my oldest child will soon be leaving for college. We have begun the process of packing and I have learned that the typical college-bound student’s packing list will include “essential items” such as a mini-fridge, laptop computer, cell phone, and shower shoes. There is one other item that I, as a lawyer, would suggest nearly all parents move to the top of the list before their student heads to school. It may come as a surprise, but that item is an estate plan.
Have you ever stopped to consider that as your children turn 18 they become legal adults? Upon reaching this milestone, our laws afford 18-year-olds with more freedom and responsibly – effectively decreasing parents’ legal authority and control over their adult children. This is the age at which an estate plan becomes necessary and important. Without your adult child giving you the legal authority through estate planning, you may be unable to help them with their routine and emergency financial or medical needs. For this reason, signing estate planning documents such as a Durable Power of Attorney and Patient Advocate Designation are “essential items” for your adult children to complete before leaving home so you are able to step in and help when needed.
There are many documented cases of young adults having medical emergencies and the hospital refusing the parents’ access, information, and (potentially lifesaving) input. Take, for example, the family of Sean Meyers. NPR reports that Sean was involved in a car accident on the way home to see his parents. Despite his parents’ efforts to see their son, the hospital would not provide them with any meaningful status updates or allow them to have any input on his care during his 10-day hospital visit. When he was discharged, he went to his parents’ house to recover, but a week later he collapsed and died. The autopsy revealed that he had several blood clots, something that was common in Sean’s family and that his parents could have told the doctors about in the hospital. If they had been able to provide input to the doctors, Sean’s death may have been avoidable. Sean’s father was quoted as saying: “It might have saved his life if they’d talked to us.” Sean’s situation could have been easily avoided if Sean had signed a Durable Power of Attorney and Patient Advocate Designation.
A Durable Power of Attorney designates who can help your child with financial matters. This could be for any reason (such as a simple trip out of town or handling insurance claims after an accident). A Patient Advocate Designation appoints an individual of your child’s choosing to make medical decisions on their behalf if they are unable to do so. If your young adult becomes incapacitated due to an accident or illness and has not done estate planning, as was seen firsthand by the family of Sean Meyers, no one (not even you as a parent) will have the automatic legal authority to jump in and provide input to the medical staff. Instead, probate court involvement may be required; this can be costly and leaves the court, rather than your child, with the authority to appoint who it deems appropriate to make any necessary decisions.
Also, if your adult child has acquired assets or plans to acquire assets in the near future, your child might consider obtaining a Will and/or Trust. An individual’s Last Will and Testament appoints a Personal Representative to handle asset transfer needs upon death and a Trust is sometimes used to supplement that Will for probate avoidance purposes.
There is still time to take care of these crucial documents before school begins – in fact, I am currently working on preparing my own child’s estate plan. If you are similarly situated and would like assistance, please connect with a member of the Rhoades McKee Estate Planning Group.