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How to Prepare and Ensure Your Child's Future By Taking Care of Legal Business

During the Terri Schiavo feeding tube debate, one of the 11 o'clock news shows did a feature on a local family in a similar situation. The daughter, now in her early 40s, was in a permanent vegetative state and had a feeding tube inserted. Her parents want nothing more than the feeding tube removed, but state law prohibits it. Part of the problem, the mother admitted during the interview, was that when their daughter was in the car accident at age 21, she had no living will or documents that would have recorded her wishes. At 21, who would think to have them.

I mentioned this to Gary Delafield, a lawyer and father of four children. When his two older daughters hit adulthood, I asked, did he sit down with them and draw up legal documents like power of attorney or living wills? "No, I haven't," he said, a little sheepishly. "But they are still little girls to me."

Adulthood of our teenagers seems to happen almost by accident. Literally, one day they are a 17-year-old (or 20-year-old, depending on the state) minor, and then, on their birthday, they are an adult in the eyes of the law and the government and of just about everybody – except, perhaps, the parents. It is hard for parents to look at the child and realize this person is now an honest-to-goodness adult. Usually it takes an outside act for a parent to truly understand that, at least in a legal sense, the relationship between parent and child has changed.

Get the Point!

For Bill Johnson of Los Alamos, N.M., the moment of his sons' adulthood came when they had to register for the Selective Service. "The notion that your child has suddenly become potential fodder for the next war causes at least a transient change in the relationship that I think is particularly poignant for a dad and a son, particularly a dad who remembers Vietnam," Johnson says.

Even if the moment is poignant or hard to accept for parents, the new adult certainly recognizes her new status. Many states recognize adulthood at age 18 (although some consider the age of consent to be 21), and the majority of high school seniors will turn 18 before their graduation. It can create a struggle between parent and teenager, as the parent believes that, until graduation, things shouldn't change in the parent/teen relationship, while the teenager wants to assert her new adulthood.

In this situation, says Traci Truly, author of the book Teen Rights and Responsibilities (Sphinx Publishing, 2005), the teenager has some leeway. "However, being an adult doesn't give the teenager a right to be an idiot," she says. Truly also points out that parents still have the responsibility to set rules and guidelines that anyone living in their house should be expected to follow. On the other hand, parents need to be willing to exercise a little more flexibility in treating their teenager as an adult.

Parents begin to lose their authority, however, in legal matters. Although each state is different (Texas, for example, considers a 17-year-old an adult in some crimes, while New York state doesn't consider an 18-year-old an adult in most matters), parents need to recognize that the time is coming when they can no longer make decisions for their new-adult child. Because of this, it is important for parents and their adult children to sit down with a legal expert and find out what decisions parents are able to make in an emergency situation and until what age.

Write It Down!

Legal documents are especially important if the parents are divorced or if one parent is estranged from the teenager, says Truly. In these situations, she explains, if divorced parents don't agree over the care, there will be a battle over which parent has the right to make the decision. An estranged parent could conceivably show up and block decisions made by the other parent. For minor children, custody agreements settle these arguments. For adult children, custody agreements are generally null and void.

What legal documents should a new adult have? According to Robert Dunn, co-author of Wills – The Big Myth (Rainbow Books, 2005), adults ages 18 to 21 should have a living will and a health care power of attorney. "After the Terri Schiavo case, every adult should have those two documents," he says. The documents should be kept where family members will be able to find them easily in an emergency, he adds.

Although Truly states that young adults should also have a power of attorney, Dunn says a power of attorney is needed only if the young adults have assets solely in his or her name. In this case, a power of attorney would prevent a court-ordered guardianship if the young person is unable to make decisions for himself. "If the assts are at a bank or a stock brokerage company, you should contact them and find out if they have their own power of attorney form," Dunn says. "If they don't have their own form, then you should ask in writing if they will honor your power of attorney if it is ever presented to them. And their response needs to be in writing, as well."

Do new adults need a will, as well? Dunn says he's never written a will for anyone of that age, but if the young adult has any personal assets such as a car or other property or any financial accounts, it may be in the young adult's best interest to write up a simple will. (If the young adult has parented a child, it is imperative to have a will to at least name guardianship should anything happen.) State laws vary, but in most situations, any property or assets will be turned over to the parents.

Watching a teenager make the step from child to adult is difficult for any parent, but the step is a little easier if both the parent and young adult have made all the legal adjustments.

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