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FAMILY | Rights of Passage

The 2 vital signatures you need from your graduate.

Remember your college years? The highlights, triumphs and life lessons – as well as the pranks, close calls, and times you needed rescue? College is for learning – and learning how to be an adult. The difference between your generation and your high school graduate’s is that the age of in loco parentis – where your school took the place of your parents – is over.

Today, schools “are not responsible for monitoring and controlling all aspects of their students’ lives,” per a landmark court case that ended this May, filed by parents who had not been informed their child was depressed and suicidal because MIT could not legally contact them. The absence of a single signature tied the school’s hands. Officials nationwide are constrained by FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) in reaching out to parents.

So, before your 18-year-old leaves for school, a gap year, volunteer service – or better yet, on the day your 17-year-old turns 18 – hand over a pen and 2 documents: power of attorney, and power of attorney for healthcare. These 2 signatures are increasingly becoming a rite of passage for young Americans, as these 2 documents allow parents or other trusted adults to act on their behalf without court approval.

The health care power of attorney allows a designee to communicate with medical professionals on important decisions when, for any reason, the student can’t. For example, if your child is one of the over 250,000 young adults hospitalized each year, unless you can fax a signed health care power of attorney to the hospital, you don’t have authority to talk to a hospital physician or other caregiver, even if important decisions must be made and your child is unconscious.

A legal power of attorney is also important. Regardless of whether you pay for some or all of school, most universities can’t and will not discuss the student with you, including any portion of the academic or other campus records. There are exceptions, e.g., in an emergency or if you claim the child on tax forms, but federal law allows schools to use their discretion. A signed consent enables the school to release records to you.

Work with your attorney to tailor your powers of attorney to your family’s needs. You can also find powers of attorney for your state online. And when it comes time to sign, if your child gives you any push-back, you might mention that in 20-30 years when the tables are turned, they might actually need the same 2 signatures from you.

(1) DZUNG DUY NGUYEN, administrator, vs. MASSACHUSETTS INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY & others, Supreme Judicial Court of the State of MA,

(2) A health care power of attorney is not about end-of-life decisions, which require a living will. Your attorney can draft all 3 documents together.

(3) Most states accept powers of attorney from a child’s home state, but if your child will be out of state for a prolonged period, it’s a wise idea to complete a second document for their new state of residence.

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