When a Child Legally Becomes an Adult: A Parent’s Right to Stay Informed

When a Child Legally Becomes an Adult: A Parent’s Right to Stay Informed

When your child was under the age of 18, and before he or she became an adult in the eyes of the law, it was easy to get information from their school, teacher, the school nurse, and to speak to your child’s pediatrician, discuss medical procedures and receive test results. But, as soon as that 18th birthday occurs, you lose the right to gain access to certain information, unless your child decides to share it with you.

As young men and women turn 18 or leave home to attend college, parents are technically out of the loop. Federal law prohibits the disclosure of certain information to anyone other than the student. This law, known as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) protects the privacy of students’ educational records. Here is an outline of the law as it affects parents and their children.

  1. Prior to the age of 18 parents have the right, while their child is attending school in grades K-12, to inspect and review the child’s educational record. However, when the child turns 18, or enters a postsecondary institution at any age, the rights under FIRPA transfers from the parent to the student.
  2. Under FERPA, schools may release information to parents without the consent of the student if the student is a dependent for tax purposes under the IRS rules.
  3. Schools may disclose information from education records to parents if there is a health or safety emergency that involves the parent’s child.
  4. Schools may also contact parents if their child is under the age of 21 and has violated any law or policy concerning the use or possession of drugs or alcohol.
  5. The law also allows schools to disclose information from “law enforcement unit records” to anyone, to include parents or local law enforcement agencies, if that information is collected by campus security units and a part of their internal records. These records are exempt from the FERPA restrictions.

*Note that the law says the schools “may”, so be prepared to get some pushback as most schools prefer to err on the side of caution before releasing any information.

Interestingly, the law is silent as to the disclosure of information based on personal knowledge. For example, a teacher, or other school personnel, may share his or her concern about a student with a parent, if that information is based on his or her own personal knowledge, and not on information found in an educational record.

So, what about medical information? If your adult child sees a physician, goes to the ER, or seeks any type of treatment, even if they are on your insurance, you don’t have a right to know unless the child tells you. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPPA) protects the privacy of health information. But, HIPPA excludes from its coverage records protected by FERPA, allowing some disclosure to parents under the situations described above.

For all the above reasons, parents should encourage their adult children to sign two very important documents:

A Designation of Health Care Surrogate that will allow you to have access to medical information and make medical decisions for your child in the event of a medical emergency.
A Durable Power of Attorney giving a parent the ability to access and manage financial and business matters for a child.
Consider what could happen if an 18-year-old college student is in a serious accident and suffers a life threating injury. Without the designation for health care, and a power of attorney, a parent would be forced to seek guardianship to manage their child’s health care and seek long term public benefits to pay for that care.

The time involved, and the costs of the documents is of minor concern balanced with the peace of mind that comes from knowing you can be there if your child needs you , but also allowing the new adult a chance to see what life is like without mom and dad.