As time passes, we tend to become more focused on our own mortality and begin to prepare our spouse, children or other heirs for a time when they could possibly need to make decisions for us. We create wills and estate plans, and we assign powers of attorney. These are subjects, however, that we generally do not think about or act upon when we are young and single, and feeling invincible. And it’s something that as parents we never want to think about concerning our own children.
But this sort of avoidance could create otherwise preventable problems when a 25-year old single person is involved in a tragic accident and becomes comatose. Or worse, he or she perishes.
According to a study conducted by The National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia in 2013, the average age of men entering their first marriage is approximately 28 years old. For women entering their first marriage, the average age is 26.
This can be interpreted in many ways, but as an attorney, this tells me that from the legal age of adulthood, 18, to roughly their late 20s on average, many young adults likely have no close relative, typically a spouse, who can make important decisions for them when they cannot do so for themselves.
Many assume that until an adult child is married, the parents will remain responsible for any serious decisions if the child becomes unable to make them on his or her own. This can be a risky assumption.
Consider these scenarios:
- Your child is 18 and about to leave home for college. Organizations from hospitals to the school itself are restricted in what information they can share with you, the parent, unless disclosure is authorized by your adult child. So what happens if there is a medical emergency? What can you do if you cannot communicate with your child?
- Your child has graduated college, does not have a spouse who is legally responsible for making “power of attorney” decisions, and you have not been formally given “power of attorney” responsibilities. What can you do to help prevent or minimize financial or another type of disaster if your adult child is in serious distress and cannot make clear-headed choices?
- Young adults may assume they can rely on their parents or other close relatives in an emergency, but they may be mistaken.
In a worst-case scenario, the lack of a power of attorney document in place can prevent doctors and hospitals from involving the family in care and treatment decisions when time is of the essence. Not uncommonly, families may have to go to court while their loved one waits in a hospital bed for critical decisions to be made.
This situation can be exacerbated if the young adult travels to another country, let’s say on a study abroad program through the student’s college. Information-sharing and decision-making while in a foreign country are subject to the laws of that country. Without a legal document that gives next of kin legal rights with regard to financial and healthcare matters, this can be impossibly challenging.
Powers of attorney fall into two general categories: Springing Powers of Attorney and Durable Powers of Attorney. A Springing Power of Attorney “springs” into enforcement under certain pre-stipulated conditions, such as when an individual becomes incapacitated due to a physical or mental health crisis. On the other hand, a Durable Power of Attorney becomes enforceable immediately upon execution by all involved parties. Both can be revoked at any time by the person who assigns power of attorney, provided the person who signed the power of attorney has not become incapacitated.
The majority of people choose the Durable Power of Attorney because it is not dependent on proof of occurrence of specified events, which can be difficult to demonstrate to an unrelated third party. A Springing Power of Attorney is much more situation-specific and dependent on a particular set of circumstances occurring before it can be implemented.
Regardless, the one thing to know for anyone with young adult, unmarried children is that you can take some simple steps now to alleviate much frustration and strain at a time when an authorized individual is needed to make important decisions for a loved one. A power of attorney granted by a child to a parent can eliminate much stress, delay and confusion at a time when they are least needed.
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