Packing for college should include legal documents

Packing for college should include legal documents

As students preparing for college consider their packing lists — laptop, charging cords, favorite jacket — they also may want to include legal documents.

Having a signed health care proxy and durable power of attorney can pave the way for their parents to help them in case of an emergency when they are away at college. Without these documents, parents may face obstacles that prevent them from receiving medical information, offering help, or making medical decisions for their children, even when there is an emergency.

At age 18, in most states, students are considered adults and confidentiality laws protect the privacy of their medical and financial information.

As outbreaks persist from Covid-19 and its variants, it is particularly important for students living away at college to have these documents in place.

Designating a health care proxy

For students under the age of 18, a health care provider can release medical records and share information with parents. But once children reach the age of 18, doctors cannot generally share information without permission because of regulations under the federal HIPAA law (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act). But if families prepare certain documents, such as a health care proxy, in advance of going to college, parents would be allowed to get information about their child’s medical condition, access records, and make decisions for them if needed.

With a health care proxy, a child can designate a parent as an agent or proxy. A number of resources explain the process of selecting a proxy.

If the child is unable to make decisions, the proxy may get information about the child’s condition, discuss options, express the child’s wishes, and make treatment decisions. A living will, or health directive, is often paired with the health care proxy, and signed at the same time, to help guide the proxy. This document allows the student to discuss their wishes about the use of various types of medical treatments to extend life.

For many states, there is conformity among these forms, meaning that executing a health care proxy in one state will apply to another. But there can be differences between the states. For parents of students attending college out of state, it is important to seek advice on choosing the correct documents. Up-to-date versions of these documents by state can be downloaded at no cost at Families may also want to consult with an attorney to ensure that important variables and considerations are addressed.

A student may have opted to stay on the family health insurance plan rather than enroll in school-sponsored coverage. But enrollment in the family’s insurance plan does not preclude the child’s right to privacy. Without a health care proxy, parents are not entitled to medical information about an adult child.

HIPAA medical release

When patients visit a doctor or hospital, they are often asked to sign a HIPAA form, which authorizes the sharing of medical information with a designated person. Typically, these forms are signed at the treating facility. However, documents prepared in advance should include language that will allow the designated agent to receive medical information in compliance with HIPAA regulations.

Durable power of attorney

Parents and students may also want to consider a durable power of attorney. This document authorizes an agent (the parent) to manage finances and sign legal documents on behalf of the student if they are incapacitated. The power of attorney will make it possible for parents to sign documents on behalf of their child, access bank accounts, and manage their accounts.

Access to financial statements

For many parents, when their child leaves for college, so ends the daily notification and alerts from the high school about grades. In general, a federal law called FERPA (Federal Education Rights Privacy Act) prevents a college or university from sharing student information with others, including parents and guardians. This applies even to students under the age of 18. However, most schools allow students to grant permission for parents to view financial statements or grades online. This provides access for parents to statements, including tuition and refunds.

Important to plan ahead

Many parents may not realize they need authorization to help their adult children. In addition, a recent survey found that 18% of respondents did not even know what a health directive is (

In most cases with children going to college, parents will not face an emergency or have to make difficult medical decisions for their children. But having a plan in place in advance can alleviate stress and complications should a difficult situation arise while a child is away from home. The best time to prepare legal documents is before the child leaves for college. Parents may want to seek assistance from a family financial advisor or legal counsel to gather and review the documents.

Putnam 529 plan


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