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Control What You Can in Times of Uncertainty: Important Documents for Parents of College Students

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

While many parents and students are still awaiting final word on whether and to what extent post-secondary classes will be held on campus this upcoming semester and still deciding whether to submit their Fall semester payments which are now coming due, uncertainty is in the air. The traditional excitement around planning ahead for back-to-campus is dulled by anxiety about health and financial concerns and uncertainty about how the upcoming semester will actually turn out despite universities’ best-laid plans. Even the most sought-after dorm room “must-haves” that have typically been on the top of students’ summer shopping lists and sometimes in short supply (like extra-long twin sheets or bed risers) have been replaced by newly sought-after items like hand sanitizer, anti-bacterial wipes and personal protective gear. 

As parents, keeping a realistic sense of optimism and focusing less on uncertainty and potential disappointment and more on what we can control will serve us and our children well at this time. And with a bit of extra time on our frequently-washed hands during this period of social distancing, here are a few issues related to our children reaching adulthood that we can address to help put our minds somewhat at ease as we prepare to send them off (or back) to college. 

Not a Child Anymore
Many parents don’t realize that once a child turns 18, parents are no longer given access to a child’s health, financial and academic records without the adult child’s consent. This is the case even if you are funding your child’s post-secondary education, claiming your child as a dependent for tax purposes or insuring them on your health insurance policy. If you haven’t already done so, experts suggest having a conversation with your now adult child about circumstances where parental access to information considered private can be extremely helpful, especially in an emergency situation. Three forms of authorization you will want to discuss and have your student consider putting in place are: 

1. HIPPA Authorization
The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPPA) puts safeguards in place to protect private health information. An adult student, however, may designate a person (a parent or otherwise) with whom medical personnel can share certain health information about the student. Producing a copy of this document executed by your student should be sufficient to obtain information from a health care provider or institution treating your child. Without this authorization in place, a parent is unlikely to be provided with any information about an adult student’s medical condition.

2. A Healthcare Proxy (or Medical Power of Attorney)
This allows an adult student to designate someone (a parent or otherwise) to make medical decisions for them if they are unable to make them for themselves. Having this document prepared and executed by your student will enable you (or whoever is appointed) to make medical decisions in the event the student is unable to do so.  

3. Durable Power of Attorney
This enables an adult student to appoint a designated agent (often, a parent) to make financial decisions on the student’s behalf under certain circumstances. Depending on how the Power of Attorney (POA) is drafted, it can provide that power vests in the designated agent immediately after the document is signed or that it vests only in the event the student becomes incapacitated. The POA also enables the designated agent to access the student’s financial accounts, pay bills, file taxes, address tuition or financial aid issues or handle other specified matters on the student’s behalf.

Where to Find Help
A Trusts & Estates Attorney would be well-positioned to assist you and if you do not have one, state bar associations can often point you in the right direction. This may be an opportunity for you and/or your partner to do a check-up on what authorizations and other documents you have in place if yours are not yet developed or are out of date. While your health care provider(s) may be able to assist with providing a form of HIPPA authorization and/or Healthcare Proxy, you’ll want to keep in mind that state laws vary and accordingly, the content of forms may vary by state as well and you’ll want the authorizations to be able to be used in a broad range of situations. 
You’ll want to help your student obtain and complete these forms pursuant to the laws of the state where your student is attending school as well as the state where your student permanently resides.

It can be rewarding to address issues that may have been overlooked in the past and that may help to bring us some comfort in the period of continued uncertainty that lies ahead. 

About the author:
Patricia Roberts is the Chief Operating Officer of Gift of College, Inc. She has been part of the 529 college savings arena for more than 20 years, serving as an attorney and product manager.


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