Late one night in April, Diane Pirzada of San Marino learned the hard way that her 18-year-old son was truly an adult. Her son, Nick, was at a rock concert when he called her on a friend’s cellphone to say his own phone had been stolen, along with his credit card stored in the phone case. Diane assumed she could easily save Nick from credit card fraud by immediately calling the credit card company to cancel the stolen card. But when she spoke to customer service, she was stunned to learn that she had no power to cancel the card because it was only in Nick’s name and, at 18, he was now legally an adult — only he could cancel it. Fortunately for both Pirzadas, she ultimately persuaded a representative to cancel the card, but the incident opened her eyes to a fact of life many parents don’t understand —  when kids turn 18, they’re legally on their own when it comes to control over many aspects of life, whether they’re away at college or still at home.

“Then I realized I needed to find out about this, especially with him going off to school,” Diane says. “So I got together with [my attorney] Alexandra Smyser and went over it with her.” Diane learned that once a child is no longer a minor, the family needs two important legal documents to allow parents to intercede on his or her behalf in case of an emergency — a durable power of attorney and an advance healthcare directive. “I don’t think a lot of people know about it until, unfortunately, they’re in a situation,” Pirzada says. “It’s the responsible thing to do for your family.” 

Arroyo Monthly spoke with two estate-planning attorneys — Smyser of Pasadena and San Marino’s Robert Petrovich — about the documents parents need to ensure they can protect their young adult child’s health and assets if they’re injured, ill or otherwise incapacitated.  

Can you talk about the legal documents parents should have in hand when their child turns 18?

ALEXANDRA SMYSER:  The first thing is a durable power of attorney, which appoints someone you trust to manage your [child’s] financial assets and to communicate with institutions about [him or her], from the cable company to the Social Security Administration. It becomes important if you’re not able to manage your affairs. If you’re in the hospital or even out of the country, it can get complicated to make sure your bills are paid, make sure that someone can deal with the bank on your behalf, if you need to cancel phone service — that kind of thing.

The other one is a similar document except that it’s for your healthcare. It’s called an advance healthcare directive [allowing parents to make medical decisions for their child]. They’re equally important; it just depends on your situation.

ROBERT PETROVICH: When they become 18, they’re an adult in this state, and when they become adults, they’re on their own. And with situations like going to college, even though [parents are] paying the tuition bills and paying the room and board, the school doesn’t have to talk to you. If you don’t have the authorization by a durable power of attorney or healthcare directive, then the school doesn’t talk to you about your kid’s medical condition, your kid’s grades, what your kid’s doing at school, because the kid is an adult. So by obtaining a healthcare directive and a durable power of attorney for property management and personal affairs, you can lodge them with the health center at the school and then with the administration; that way they have on file that we have the right to ask questions about anything in connection with their grades, health issues, that sort of thing.

Should everyone have these documents?

AS:  Honestly, everybody over the age of 18 should have these documents. They’re not expensive documents, and we hope you never have to use them, but if you need them, it can make a difficult situation much easier. 

RP:  We recommend it to everybody. For 18-year-olds to 25-year-olds, until they get out of school, they don’t own much stuff, so mainly you want to be able to make decisions on their behalf when they can’t. Like I always say, ‘If your advance healthcare is working, you’re not.’ So somebody’s got to be able to speak for you, because that’s what the health directive says —“If I’m unconscious or unable to deal with my own medical care, then I appoint John Smith as my healthcare agent.”

This is news to me, and I’m the father of two adult children. Am I unusual?

AS:  People don’t really know about it. Thankfully, it doesn’t happen that often. It’s one of those things that people don’t necessarily want to deal with. It’s hard to do those things, and the healthcare directive is especially difficult because you have to decide how you want the end of your life to be handled. For certain people, it’s hard. But then you put it away, and hopefully you never have to use it.

I see people on the other end, who call me in a bind, because they have, unfortunately, a child who has taken ill or has been in an accident, and they’re having trouble. And then we have to go to all that difficulty to navigate the system without those documents. It’s a little bit of insurance.

It sounds like parents should also have their own durable power of attorney and advance healthcare directive.

RP:  Accidents happen, and there are going to be times when you need somebody to speak for you, and unless you’ve got a healthcare directive, then nobody’s going to speak for you. They’ll only get your condition back to basically stable and get you to a point where you can consent to your own medical care.

When we make these things nowadays, we recommend that you carry around a USB stick with all your information. First responders are now being trained to look for these USB sticks. If you put ICE on the stick — In Case of Emergency — all the EMTs now have computers; they can plug it in and all of a sudden, you’ve got the power of attorney, the healthcare directive, you can list your doctor contacts, the medications you’re taking. When time is of the essence, it’s really important that this information is readily available. You can put a USB stick on your keychain. It’s having the information available to whoever needs it that there are people who can speak for you. Because otherwise, they’re limited, either by policy or by statute, as to what they can do in a medical emergency situation.