Even more important than the giant Bed, Bath & Beyond order families will send their kids off to college with this year, advisers should make sure clients have prepared three legal documents for children who have turned 18.
Parents should have a durable power of attorney, a medical power of attorney and a HIPAA release for each adult child, advisers and estate attorneys said.
Conversations around attaining these from 18-year-old daughters and sons can be unsettling, but they will make certain stressful situations in the future much easier.
"It's emotionally gut-wrenching to talk about this, but the alternative is more gut-wrenching," said Ronald Stair, president of Creative Plan Designs.
He tells reluctant clients his personal experience of not being able to get any information about the condition of his 28-year-old daughter two years ago when she had a heart attack and was in a coma for four hours.
The family secured a HIPAA release and medical power of attorney shortly after she regained consciousness. Tragically, they needed to enact those papers two weeks later when she had a catastrophic heart attack.
"At least I could sign a [do not resuscitate] order, or she might still be in a coma or in a vegetative state," he said.
A signed Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act form gives medical professionals permission to share information about their patient.
A medical power of attorney, also known as a health-care proxy, allows someone else to make health-care decisions when a person is incapable of doing it themselves.
While obtaining these two documents, parents might as well get the student's general power of attorney, too, Mr. Stair said. That way parents would be able to sign other papers on the student's behalf and have access to financial accounts and other information, such as grades.
Jane Wolk, an estate planning attorney, said once a child is 18 he or she "is legally a stranger to his parents."
Troubles arise most often when students are away at college, are taken to the hospital and are unable to communicate because they are sick, injured or in surgery when parents learn the news and call the hospital.
"That hospital staff is not legally allowed to share with parents or take directions over the phone if parents can't show they have authority," Ms. Wolk said.
She's observed that hospitals are becoming more vigilant about enforcing HIPAA in recent years to protect themselves from legal liability.
Ms. Wolk, who herself has a son heading off to college for the first time in two weeks, recommends parents keep the original documents in a safe but quickly accessible place at home, and also keep a PDF file of the papers stored digitally for immediate access anywhere.
In most cases, hospitals will accept a copy of the documents, she said.