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Legal Documents for College Students

You lose some of your parental rights once your offspring turn 18, but they can obtain legal documents that will allow you to intercede on their behalf, particularly when they go away to college.

Question:

My 18-year-old son is starting college next month and will be living away from home for the first time. Does he need any special legal documents?

Answer:

Now that your son is 18, you lose many of the legal rights you had as a parent when he was younger—even the right to receive his grades without his okay. There are a few legal documents he’ll need, especially because he’s moving away from home, that will allow you to help him with health or financial matters if needed, says Foster Friedman, an estate-planning attorney in Alexandria, Va.

Health-care documents. Because your son is 18, you can no longer access his medical records or make medical decisions on his behalf without special legal documents. A HIPAA authorization form (based on a federal law that protects the privacy of medical records) signed by him will permit you to receive information from health care providers about his health and treatment. If the college has a health clinic, for example, your son may need to sign a HIPAA authorization form to give you access to any information about his treatment there. A health care power of attorney naming his parents as his “medical agents” will give you the ability to make medical decisions on your son’s behalf if he’s unable to do so himself. The specific requirements of the document vary by state. Virginia, for example, combines a health-care power of attorney and a living will (specifying a person’s wishes for end-of-life care) in one document, called an advance directive for health care, which must be signed in front of two witnesses.

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Durable power of attorney. You may also want to consider a durable power of attorney, especially if your son’s college is far away. This would give you the authority to sign documents on your son’s behalf and handle any financial or legal matters while he’s gone—such as managing financial accounts held in his name or filing a tax return on his behalf. Also find out if his bank requires a separate form. A power of attorney can be particularly helpful if your child is traveling abroad, says Friedman. Talk with your son and an attorney about the details to include, such as what rights you will have and for how long.

Specifics vary by state. But the Virginia Bar Association has a good publication, called So You’re 18, about the legal changes at age 18 in Virginia, which brings up many key legal issues to find out about in your own state.

Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act waiver. You may be footing the tuition bill, but you won’t be able to receive your son’s grades without his permission. He can grant that by signing the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) waiver. Many colleges provide an authorization letter for students to sign if they’d like to give their parents access.

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