Legal Housekeeping for College Students

There’s a lot to think about when you go off to college. In the scramble to take care of the big things — packing, shopping for dorm decor, negotiating travel logistics, trying not to have a nervous breakdown — it’s easy to forget some of the less exciting but nonetheless essential tasks…like signing advanced health care directives.

When you turn 18, you are legal adults, which means that your parents/guardians lose the legal authority to make decisions for you. They won’t legally be able to access your medical, academic or financial information or represent you in these areas. Should you have an accident or become otherwise incapacitated, they won’t be able to act on your behalf unless documentation is in place. They may not be even be able to get information from hospitals about your condition in the event of an emergency.

You’ll need the following if you’d like your parents/guardians to be able to continue supporting you with regard to medical and financial information and decisions: 

Durable Power of Attorney This document will able your parents/guardians to act of your behalf in legal and financial matters without you losing any ability to act on their own. It gives families the ability to do things such as pay bills, apply for loans, and access or transfer funds, which can be useful if you are studying abroad, sick or injured, or just overwhelmed with school work and in need of some help managing your affairs. This document can be drafted to become effective immediately upon signing and can be revoked at any time, as long as you aren’t under a disability. 

Advanced Health Care Directive If you have an accident or other health emergency and is incapacitated, this document gives your family the authority to make decisions on your behalf. It can also include information about your wishes regarding organ donation and end of life decisions. A HIPAA waiver will give your family access to your medical records so they are able to make informed decisions regarding care. 

You might also consider as a separate document an Advanced Directive for mental health care, which would enable your family to make decisions and direct care for you should you experience a mental disability and need your family to represent you. 

FERPA Release Parents/guardians are sometimes surprised to learn that they are not able to speak to colleges to discuss their adult child’s grades and academic progress. A FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) form must be signed for your family to access records and talk to colleges about you. The forms may be requested from colleges. 

While most families see the benefit of advanced health care directives and durable powers of attorney, the FERPA release can be tricky. Should students have privacy regarding their academic records and progress? Is it healthy/valuable for families to monitor adult children in this way? At what point do students become responsible for their own educations? 

While we all hope there will never be a need for our families to intervene on our behalf in a medical or legal situation, for many families, knowing that they have the ability to make decisions and direct care in an emergency is comforting. Clearly, whether or not to create these documents is a decision that should be made only after clear discussion and agreement between you and your family. As a young adult, your privacy is important to you (and might be a sticky subject with your family); strive to find a balance between assuring their ability to support you in serious situations and maintaining a comfortable level of control over your own life.  

Regardless of what you and your family decide, this is a worthwhile conversation about issues that all responsible adults should address. None of us can predict the future, and thorny situations and emergencies unfortunately do arise. Investing a small amount of time and energy now can enable your family to contribute to your well being in critical times, and by negotiating and navigating the process, you’ll be taking another important step on your path to adulthood.  

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