Parents: Make sure your college-age child has these four legal documents

Parents are used to signing all types of documents for their children over the years. From permission slips, to waivers, to medical forms – you've probably signed them all!

When they turn 18-years-old, and become legal adults, that usually stops.

But estate-planning expert Jason Smolen says it shouldn't completely end there.

Why? If there is an emergency, parents could find themselves blocked from being able to make crucial decisions to help their child.

Here are the four documents Smolen says all parents should have prepared for their kids as soon as they turn 18:

HIPAA Authorization Form: HIPAA is an acronym that stands for Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996. It's a federal law that protects private health data.

  • By signing a HIPAA authorization form and naming you as an authorized party, your 18+ year-old provides legal permission for you to request and receive information from health care providers (such as ER doctors or nurses) about his or her medical status, progress and treatment following an accident or illness.

Health Care Proxy/Power of Attorney: One of the most important questions health care providers face when caring for an unconscious patient is: "Who can make medical decisions for this person?" A health care proxy/power of attorney document answers that question. Whoever it names as the patient's "medical agent" has the ability to view his or her medical records and make informed medical decisions on his or her behalf.

  • Without a health care proxy, a patient's diagnosis and treatment is entirely in the hands of health care providers. Their duty is to keep the patient alive using whatever means they deem medically appropriate.
  • If your adult child named you as his or her proxy (i.e., representative) in a health care power of attorney document, you have the legal authority to decide — if your son or daughter is unconscious — which courses of treatment doctors may or may not pursue, typically in accordance with his or her living will.

Living Will: Unlike a last will and testament (which details a person's post-death instructions), a living will — sometimes referred to as an advance directive — explains what care a person wants if alive but unconscious.

  • It's a horrible thing to contemplate, but in the event of a catastrophic accident or terminal illness that leaves your adult child incapacitated or in a permanent vegetative state, the living will explicitly tells medical providers how far to go in providing care. Does your son or daughter want to be kept on life support? What about CPR, tube feeding, pain medication and other care specifics?
  • A living will/advance directive saves everyone from guessing.

General Durable Power of Attorney: Everyone matures at a different rate. Your 18-year-old might be plenty ready to take on the annoying duties of adulthood, such as filing tax returns, managing their financial affairs, and handling legal matters when they arise. Or…not. A durable power of attorney gives you the legal capacity to handle those tasks for them.

  • Car registration renewal due? Interest-and-dividend 1099s available to download from an investment broker? A general durable power of attorney means you can do such things on your son's or daughter's behalf. Even if they can do all this on their own, they might need you to step in during, say, an overseas study year.
  • A word of warning: A general durable power of attorney should not be seen as license for the new 18-year-old to ignore the legal responsibilities that come with adulthood. Nor is it a tool for helicopter parents to treat their 18-year-old like a permanent child. Ideally, it is a safety net — and an opportunity to educate a new adult about financial and legal matters.

Extra Credit: A fifth document would be wise to add: a simple will. No one wants to think about worst-case scenarios for young people just getting started in college and in life. But an estate-planning attorney can easily include a will along with the above four must-have documents to provide clarity about your son's or daughter's wishes for what to do with their belongings and assets in the event of their passing.

These documents are especially important for adult children of divorced parents. The last thing anyone needs in an emergency is a tug-of-war between exes over who gets to make what decisions for their unconscious adult child.

Find more information from Jason Smolen online.