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Adulthood 101: Six pre-college legal documents to start preparing now

As kids prepare to start college this fall, many of them will also reach another important milestone: Turning 18. Wealth Strategist Ben Rizzuto outlines six legal documents families should consider drafting to help children prepare for the transition to adulthood.

Ben Rizzuto, CFP®, CRPS®

Ben Rizzuto, CFP®, CRPS®

Wealth Strategist

Jul 8, 2024
6 minute read

Key takeaways:

  • Individuals in the U.S. obtain several rights when they turn 18, including the right to vote, make a will, and apply for credit in one’s own name.
  • Along with those rights come some new responsibilities. For example, an 18-year-old can sue and be sued for contracts they make.
  • Having certain legal documents in place – such as a medical and financial power of attorney – can help protect children and their families should accidents or issues arise.

At this point in the summer, many high-school seniors have started making plans for the next step in their educational careers: College. For many, this is the first time they will be living on their own and experiencing independence, making the next few months a period full of excitement and nerves.

Along with the educational and social aspects, starting college usually coincides with turning 18, which means that, depending on their state of residence, these kids will reach the age of majority and be considered adults. (For better or worse, those in Alabama, Nebraska, and Mississippi will need to wait until they turn 19.)

So, what does it mean to reach adulthood? Here are some of the rights individuals obtain when they turn 18:

– The right to vote in national, state, and local elections
– The right to make a will
– The right to obtain medical treatment without the consent of your parents
– The right to apply for credit in your own name
– The right to work any type of job with no restrictions
– The right to live independently from your parents and be free of their control

Along with those rights come some new responsibilities:

– If you violate the law, you will be tried and sentenced as an adult, rather than a juvenile.
– You may sue and be sued by others for contracts you make.
– You may be called for jury duty.
– If you are male, you must register with the Selective Service System to be eligible in the event of a military draft.1

I can see many 18-year-olds reacting to some items on the first list with, “Awesome!” They may also ask questions like, “What’s a will?” and find themselves wondering, “Wait, I’m still not sure when I should take Tylenol instead of ibuprofen … how am I supposed to know when I need medical treatment?!” And the second list might just cause outright panic.

How parents can help children prepare

If you’re the parent of a child on the verge of college and adulthood, you may be experiencing your own moment of panic. But as with most life-changing events, a little preparation goes a long way.

As you prepare to help your child start figuring out what it means to be an adult – but also take care of them should they need help – it’s important to make sure the appropriate legal documents are in place to ensure the transition goes as smoothly as possible.

Here are several documents families should consider drafting:

1. A HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) authorization allows an individual (in this case, the 18-year-old college student) to grant specific people (such as their parents) permission to receive information about their health status, treatments, or payment for healthcare. Essentially, it lets healthcare providers share information with those the individual has named in the document.

2. A Medical Power of Attorney (MPOA) allows an individual (the “principal”) to appoint another person (the “agent” or “attorney-in-fact”) to make healthcare decisions on their behalf in the event they are unable to communicate or make those decisions themselves. This is a crucial document for anyone over the age of 18, including college students, as it ensures that their healthcare wishes are known and can be acted upon during critical times.

3. A Financial Power of Attorney (FPOA) is like an MPOA but provides an agent with the authority to manage financial affairs on behalf of the principal. Creating an FPOA gives students a significant degree of control over their financial wellbeing but also ensures that their financial matters can be managed smoothly, regardless of where they are or what circumstances they might face.

4. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) is a federal law that protects the privacy of student education records. FERPA gives students the right to control who has access to their educational records. Families should check with the Office of the Registrar at their child’s university for specific policies and procedures. Overall, creating a FERPA Authorization balances the student’s right to privacy with the practical benefits of parental involvement.

5. A simple will allows students to specify how they want their assets, no matter how modest, to be distributed upon their death. In today’s digital age, many young adults have significant digital assets, such as social media accounts, digital currencies, or online businesses. A will can include instructions on how these digital assets should be handled or distributed. Even for young adults – again including college students – drafting a simple will can be an important step in responsible life planning.

6. An Advance Healthcare Directive (AHD), also known as a living will, medical directive, or advance directive, is a legal document that outlines a person’s preferences regarding medical treatment in the event they become unable to make decisions for themselves due to illness or incapacity.

7. Selective Service registration is a legal requirement in the United States for most male citizens and male immigrant non-citizens between the ages of 18 and 25. Though the U.S. has not instituted a draft since the Vietnam War, registration remains a legal obligation and is linked to eligibility for various federal and state programs and benefits. This includes federal student loans and grant programs, which are crucial for many students to pursue higher education.

With any legal document, it is important to understand your state’s or institution’s rules. For example, some states use a combination of different documents to appoint a healthcare agent and state your directives, including a healthcare power of attorney, healthcare proxy, and/or living will.

The process of creating these documents accomplishes several important things. First and foremost, it helps to protect children and their families should accidents or issues arise.  It also prompts important conversations between parents and children about their wishes, their responsibilities, and the considerations of adulthood.

Finally, as children navigate the transition into adulthood, this process empowers them to make informed decisions about their finances and healthcare, while also ensuring that their wishes are known and respected and providing clarity and comfort to their loved ones.

1 New York State Bar Association, “Now That You’ve Turned 18.” 2024.