Thursday, January 13, 2011

Estate Planning: For Teenagers??

Planning for the future is important.  We need to provide for our family in case something unexpected occurs. Many of my clients achieve a level of “peace of mind” through an appropriately tailored estate plan.  But if there are adult dependent children living in the family, the estate plan might need an extra step.  Adult dependent children need an estate plan, too.

"Say what?  My 18 year old child needs a will?”

Well, not exactly.  But your 18 year old child does need to give you the legal authority to act on their behalf should they become disabled and unable to communicate.  Why?  Because health care providers and the colleges your child attends consider your child an adult when it comes to decisions relating to health care and school records.  Add to this the ramifications of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (known by its infamous acronym “HIPAA”), and health care providers become loathe to disclose any information about your son or daughter. 

This shouldn’t happen.  The HIPAA privacy regulations offer exceptions which give health care providers some “common sense” discretion to disclose “personal health information” to “a family member, other relative, or a close personal friend.” (45 CFR 164.510(b)). This rule goes on to specifically allow a provider to use its professional judgment and experience with common practice in deciding whether and what to tell such persons. 

But many providers overreact, and interpret HIPAA’s privacy protections as an absolute barrier to all disclosure.  This leads to absurd results. For example, a client told me about a college sophomore who traveled to an “away game” for the school’s hockey team.  This young lady was somehow injured at the game, and transported by ambulance to a local hospital.  The student’s parents were notified that their daughter had been hospitalized, but no one was willing to disclose where she had been taken, or the extent of her injuries.  Those parents spent a sleepless night worrying until their daughter contacted them the next morning, fortunately not seriously injured.

How can parents avoid this?  By having their college aged children execute a durable power of attorney.  This is a legal document that permits the child to appoint a parent (or other person) as agent to carry out certain functions and make decisions in their place. It is a simple form that is “fill in the blanks” and signed – no court order or other action is needed (though I do recommend consulting an attorney -- the instructions in the body of the document should be tailored for the specific situation).  Under Illinois law, a Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care permits your child to appoint you or your spouse as an agent while expressing their per­sonal wishes about health care decisions in the event they become incapacitated. In addition, I recommend executing a Durable Power of Attorney for Property to cover issues relating to school records (e.g. in the event of an emergency when the child is unavailable or missing, the school clearly understands the child’s intent to allow information to be given to his/her parents).

While the exceptions to the HIPAA privacy regulations should allow parents to receive critical information about the medical treatment of their adult college-aged children, a properly worded and executed power attorney gives parents the specific, direct authority to overcome the misinterpretation of privacy rules. Some students might balk at the idea of their parents having access to their records, but these documents can be personalized to only allow such access in the event of an emergency.  I recommend that parents of college aged children arrange to have their kids execute the appropriate powers of attorney before they start school in the fall (or now, as they are returning to school after the holiday break), and have copies filed with the appropriate authorities and health care providers on campus.  Then, they can head off situations like the one I described, and be assured that whatever happens, they will be “in the know” regarding their child’s status at school

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