Recently my son, a 21 year old senior in college, required some minor surgery. I felt pretty comfortable with the privacy rules pertaining to young adults and the need for my son to give his doctor permission to talk with me about my son's condition. We discussed this and he decided to sign a Health Care Proxy and HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) Release form so the doctor could talk with me about his specific care. We thought we were good to go.
The day of the surgery, I drove him to the hospital, filled out the "Responsible for Payment" forms, gave my contact information and waited patiently in the waiting room for his procedure to be completed. After about 2 hours, I walked to the front desk to inquire if they had any word on his status. You can imagine my surprise when the clerk informed me that she could not share that information with me. I explained that my son had filled out and signed a Health Care Proxy and HIPAA form so that I could get this information. She explained that while he may have done that with his doctor, the hospital unfortunately did not have a copy in their files. Of course, I didn't have a copy with me, as I had mistakenly thought this information would be sent to the hospital.
This incident got me thinking about my kids and what would happen if we were faced with an emergency situation. Would access to our children's health care provider be limited? I became anxious, realizing that I might not be able to help my child in their time of need! Isn't that every parent's biggest fear?
If my child was unable to make financial decisions due to a medical situation or condition, I also realized I wouldn't have access to my child's financial information (banks, investment accounts, credit cards, etc.).
Fortunately, there are a couple of simple forms that can alleviate these parental anxieties. Planning ahead of time, before the emergency, is the key. Consider having your child sign a statutory health care proxy, naming a parent as the child's health care agent. Also, your child might consider a durable power of attorney, giving a parent access to their financial assets if they are unable to manage them themselves. The power of attorney should be carefully drafted by an attorney as they can vary greatly.
If your child becomes incapacitated and does not have a health care proxy or power of attorney in place, then your only recourse will be to go to court to obtain a Guardianship and/or Conservatorship. This involves a public process that can be expensive and time consuming. In contrast, these basic documents are straightforward and can be prepared by your estate planning attorney relatively quickly and at a much lower cost than a court proceeding. Once these documents are drawn up, be sure to ask your child for a copy and keep it in a safe but accessible place that family members can find easily.
Thank goodness my son came through his surgery without any complications. Nevertheless, if we had these documents in place before hand, my anxiety would have been greatly eased. I am once again reminded that the planning we do today can have an important impact on the options that are available to us when we need them the most.
By Jessie L. Foster