Turning Eighteen: Do You Know What It Means?

My fourteen-year old son recently caused me to choke on my coffee when he mentioned that he would be able to vote in the next presidential election. It is a form of denial that maybe all parents have about the passage of time and their children. We spend almost two decades raising them, holding their hands while they cross the street, trying to fill their plates with four different-colored foods, and teaching them manners and safety. I know I have blinded myself to the meaning of the eighteen years demarcation because of the permanence of my role as parent. I will always be a mother and my son and daughter will always be my children. Nonetheless they will turn eighteen and be emancipated under the law and that has legal ramifications of which I suspect most parents and children are not aware.

Yes, my son will be able to vote and I like that he knows that and anticipates it. But on his eighteenth birthday several other important things will be true that were not true the day before. He will be able to enter contracts and be legally bound by them. For example, he can obtain his own credit card and that can affect his credit history with ramifications that he will not fully comprehend for some time. He will be able to write a will and direct to whom his property will pass upon his death and who will serve as the Executor of his estate. He will be able to choose who can have access to his financial life and who can pay his bills and handle any property he may come to own by executing a durable power of attorney for finances. At some point he’ll be responsible for filing his own tax returns.

He will be able to have complete privacy about his health care unless he chooses to name me as a HIPAA representative so that the doctors can share information with me. He will be able to execute a health care power of attorney and decide who would make his heath care decisions if he is incapacitated. He can sign a living will to ensure that if he wants a natural death, he can have it. Recall Teri Schiavo of Florida. She was twenty-six years old and did not have a living will. As a result, a long court battle ensued over whether she should be removed from life support. My son would not want that.

Unless I make him aware of his new legal status, he probably will not know that he can and should take action. I have said in this column that your will is your last act of parenting. Executing these legal documents also can be one of your first acts as an adult. I know many parents who help their young children open bank accounts in order to teach the value of saving money. Explaining to them that not only can they vote but they also can take control of their finances and health care is another lesson that we should share with them. I know I did not fully understand when I reached legal majority what it meant to turn “eighteen” and if I had, I might have visited a lawyer and put a plan in place long before I actually did (which was after I became a lawyer). It also is useful that a child turned adult know how to find a good lawyer, accountant or physician, know what it’s like to be treated as a grown-up in a business transaction, and recognize that part of being an adult is thinking about the impact of your presence and your absence on others.

If we guide our children and let them know that they have these rights and responsibilities, we are continuing to parent them well. It might seem a strange birthday gift but when my son turns eighteen, I am considering helping him choose a lawyer and then paying for his planning in celebration of his new status. I imagine he would be happier with a car, but years later I think he will thank me for the message that gave him: that as his parent I recognize that he is grown but I can and will still be there to offer him guidance.

Update:  My son has turned eighteen.  The week following his birthday he executed all of his estate planning documents.

Originally published in Southern Neighbor, June 2013

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