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Estate planning for college students … really?

Published On: Dec 24 2013 03:41:51 AM CST   Updated On: Aug 29 2013 01:40:38 PM CDT
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By attorney Justin A. Meyer, Special to THELAW.TV

For an 18-year-old student, going away to college can be an exciting time. It may be the new adult's first chance at true independence and freedom. Certainly, it can mean an opportunity for the student to get away from the control of his parents. But, what most college students don't fully grasp is that for the first time in their lives, they are truly outside of their parents control.

For that reason, college students should look at some basic estate planning. Most people hear that term -- estate planning -- and think that it means a last will and testament. While that can be part of the process, it is not the whole thing. In fact, for the typical college student, who has no real assets of his own, a will may not be necessary. Instead, it is the other documents that make up the estate plan that he or she needs.

So what documents do you, the college student really need? You need at least two, and as many as four. The first is a power of attorney, or financial power of attorney. The second is a health care proxy, or a health care power of attorney (the name is different depending on the state). The other two documents that you should look at are a HIPAA Release and a FERPA Release. I'll explain what these documents are in a second, but let me first lay out why you need them.

When you turn 18, you are legally an adult. As an adult, your parents cannot make your decisions for you anymore. The result is that should you need medical treatment, and you are unable to make decisions for yourself, your parents cannot decide for you. Instead, they would have to go to court and convince a judge to allow them to make health care decisions on your behalf. That can be a time-consuming process and it can be costly as well. As an adult, your parents cannot take financial actions in your name either, such as paying your credit card bills. If, however, you are injured or out of the country (think study abroad), then you want your parents to have the ability to take care of emergencies should they arise.

Here's what each document does:

Power of attorney: This gives your agent authority (as you define it) to handle financial or legal matters on your behalf. The agent can take care of your banking, bills, and even file a lawsuit for you if needed.

Health care proxy/health care power of attorney: If you are unable to make your own medical decisions, this document will a) appoint someone to make medical decisions for you and b) state your wishes regarding end-of-life care. If you don't want to be hooked up to machines, then your end-of-life decisions need to be spelled out. In most states, you can have only one Proxy at a time.

HIPAA release: This allows the named person to talk to your doctors and get information about your health.

FERPA release: This allows the named person to talk to your school about your grades, and get other information about your school performance. Most colleges will have their own form for you to fill out. You should not try to draft your own.

A lot of people -- such as attorneys and financial advisers -- try to sell these documents to parents as "ways to keep control of your children after they leave for college."

In one sense, they can be used that way (although generally, the health care proxy can only be used if you are incapacitated). However, more importantly, they allow you, and your parents, to ensure that you have protection should anything happen to you. And if you trust another family member, or family friend, more than your parents, you can appoint anyone. Just as easily, you can revoke any, or all, of these documents without any effort. All it takes is a letter stating that the document is revoked. What these documents do provide is a security net and peace of mind. They ensure that you have someone who can take care of you, when you aren't able to. They provide the legal framework to protect you when you cannot protect yourself.

The author, Justin Meyer, is an attorney in Hauppauge, N.Y., who focuses his practice primarily on business law, estate planning, probates and real estate.

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