The One Thing Parents of College-Bound Freshmen Forget

Car packed for college

It's June—graduation season! If you have a graduating senior, congratulations! Your spring has probably been a blur of parties and proms, and your summer will likely be a whirlwind of preparation for college: shopping to outfit dorm rooms, filling out myriad forms, even getting vaccinations updated. It's a lot, but you've read the college website and sage advice blog posts from parents who have been there. As parents of college-bound freshmen, you've got everything (almost) under control. But there's a virtual certainty you've overlooked one important detail in preparing to launch your child into college life.

It's understandable that you'd forget. After all, for the whole of your child's life, you've been the adult authorized to sign legal papers and make medical and educational decisions for them. Every form they've encountered to date has said "If under 18, this form must be signed by parent or guardian." That was you.

Until now. Your child woke up on her 18th birthday looking like the same bright-faced kid you loved yesterday. But in the eyes of the law, she is an adult, and a "legal stranger" to you. She doesn't need you to sign those forms anymore, including medical forms. In fact, not only do you not need to sign them, you don't automatically have the legal right to know what's in them.

You may be generally okay with that fact. But if your child goes away to school, especially far away, and has a medical emergency, what happens then?

College Students and Medical Emergencies

Of course, the majority of college students make it through their college careers without any major medical issues. There's every reason to hope and believe that your child will be just fine, too. That said, you'll feel better if you're prepared.

Imagine this scenario: Your child is in school five hundred miles away. She's in a car accident and is rushed to the hospital, unconscious. You don't know the specifics of her condition, and her doctor may not be willing to discuss them with you, because your child is a legal adult and has not given permission. Despite the fact that she's on your health insurance plan, and that you'll be paying her hospital bills, doctors are not required to tell you anything. They may choose to, if they decide it's in their patient's best interest. But unlike your child's pediatrician, they don't know you or your relationship with your child. Their obligation is to their patient, which means they'll often err on the side of protecting the patient's privacy over informing parents.

Needless to say, especially when you're hundreds of miles away, this is agonizing. It will be hours, at the earliest, before you can get to your child, and even then, you may have access to only limited information. Fortunately, with a little advance planning, you can avoid this scenario and others like it.

Forms You Need Signed Before Your Child Leaves for College

The first form you need your child to sign is a HIPAA authorization that authorizes medical professionals to disclose your child's health information to you. If the form is not incorporated into another legal document, it need not be notarized. To be on the safe side, have your child sign a HIPAA authorization in your home state, as well as a form for the state in which they'll be attending college if they're going out of state. Also check to see if their college has a HIPAA form that they use. It may seem a bit "belt-and-suspenders," but the goal is for the medical provider to see a form with which they are familiar and on which they are comfortable relying.

Having a signed HIPAA authorization is important, but it's not very useful unless you can access and transmit it readily. After your child signs the form, scan them and have them available on your computer and smartphone.

What if your child hesitates to sign a form, because they don't want you to have access to certain personal information, such as about treatment for STDs or mental health issues?

What if your child hesitates to sign a form, because they don't want you to have access to certain personal information, such as about treatment for STDs or mental health issues? Reassure them that they can place limitations, on the form itself, on they types of information that will be disclosed. It may be hard for you not to have access to every detail, but it's more important that you be able to get the information you really need when you need it.

Another form you'll need is a medical power of attorney. This form will authorize you to make health care decisions on your child's behalf in the event they are incapacitated. States vary on whether a medical power of attorney must be notarized. Michigan does not require the form to be notarized, but it may be. You may want to have the form notarized in case the state in which your child is studying or is injured requires it.

Like a HIPAA authorization, make sure you have a scanned copy of your child's medical power of attorney readily available, and the original close at hand. Another thing to be aware of: medical powers of attorneys may go by different names, such as designation of healthcare proxy, patient advocate designation, or durable power of attorney for health care. It's best to consult with your family's estate planning attorney to make sure that you have the proper form and that it's properly executed.

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