Estate Planning for Teens: What Parents Can Learn From The Sutton Family Tragedy

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On December 13th, eighteen-year-old Alec Sutton was taken to Banner Desert Medical Center in Mesa, Arizona after suffering a brain injury in a tragic car accident. Friends and family were praying for a miracle and trying to get a second opinion when doctors refused their pleas and Alec was removed from life support the following week.

Alec’s parents are outraged and are looking into legal options to challenge the hospital’s decision.  Like a lot of parents, you may be thinking, “How could the hospital be able to do this!?” However, the hospital’s decision was legal and not uncommon.  You see, Alec did not have a medical power of attorney or a living will. In the absence of those documents, a parent or relative does not have an absolute legal right to make decisions regarding life support.  If this is shocking to you, you’re not alone.  A lot of parents have no idea their child needs estate planning documents.  In this week’s blog post, we cover the process of discussing estate planning with your teen and getting these important documents in place, so this never happens to your family. 

Talking to Your Teen about Estate Planning

As your teenager nears the age of eighteen, you may be thinking a lot about what it means to be the parent of an adult. Not only is your child going to be stepping into the world as a legal adult with decision-making freedom, but you will be stepping out of the role of legal guardian. This shift comes with a myriad of implications, some of which may cause serious concerns. However, there are steps that you and your teen can take to make sure that they are prepared for the responsibility of adult life. Estate planning, believe it or not, is a great place to start.

Even Without Assets, Estate Planning is Essential

Estate planning is about more than just how to transfer assets when a person dies. Even if your teen doesn’t have a dollar to his or her name, it is essential that there is a plan in place.  Estate planning can be difficult to think about when you look at a young person just stepping out into the world, but accident, injury, and illness can affect anyone. Once your child turns eighteen, you no longer have the legal right to get involved in health care decisions and, if need be, end-of-life decisions. Before this happens, it is essential that you discuss estate planning with your child. This can be a great chance to encourage your teen to take responsibility for his or her future. Talking to trusted family members, meeting with an attorney, and laying out a clear plan are all important experiences for a young person and can help set them up for a successful future.

Make a Plan, Even if it is Uncomfortable to Talk About

Mortality is a difficult coming-of-age concept, but it is one that may be a bit easier for your child if they are introduced to talking about and planning for death at an early age. If accident, injury, or illness occur and result in physical or mental incapacity, your teen will need to have a written document designating their medical care preferences and to whom they want to entrust health care decision-making. Without any documentation, decision-making will be left to the doctor or other medical professional until you are able to gain legal status to get involved. Advance health care directives, powers of attorney, and health care proxy designations will all be critical if the unimaginable occurs.

Which Documents Does My Teen Need?

Advance health care directives (sometimes called living wills, health care proxies, or medical directives), allow a patient to express their medical wishes in advance and to designate a person who can step in to make medical decisions if they are unable to do so.

An advance health care directive can include preferences about specific medical treatments and situations, including whether your son or daughter wants to receive life-prolonging treatment. These decisions have profound religious and philosophical implications, and it will be important to have this discussion with your teen.

Within an advance health care directive, your adult child can designate a person to make medical decisions on his or her behalf if they are unable to do so. This is sometimes called the health care proxy, durable medical power of attorney, or health care surrogate. The proxy (and successor proxies, in case the primary person listed is unable to fulfill these duties) should be willing and able to make medical decisions for the child. Having a medical proxy helps avoid the confusion and delay that may be caused by having to go to court and ask for a guardian to be appointed.

If your child chooses to appoint you as a medical proxy, it will be essential that you listen carefully and openly to them as they express their preferences to you. This conversation can remain open as your young adult gets older and matures. If medical preferences change or if your child wants to designate a different medical proxy later in life (for example, if they get married), these documents can easily be destroyed and replaced with new directives.

If your child does have any assets, including bank accounts, stocks, bonds, or savings accounts, he or she will also need to designate someone to be responsible for their financial decisions if they become incapacitated. This is the role of the person designated in a power of attorney document.

How Do We Go About Making a Plan?

Some states do have standardized forms that you can use to make these designations and to express your preferences. However, it is essential to read these forms carefully to ensure that they reflect your child’s intention. It is best to consult with an experienced attorney, who can work with you and your young adult to draft directives that best meet your family’s preferences. While you won’t be able to prepare for every circumstance that may arise, an attorney can help you think through possible situations and put a plan in place that will help you handle whatever situations you may encounter.

For these documents to be legally binding, they have to be executed by an adult. Your state also may have requirements that the document be witnessed and notarized. An attorney can help you ensure that these documents are drafted correctly and executed properly.

Make sure that you and your child have copies of these documents, as well as the health care proxy, if that is someone other than yourself. Keep these documents in a safe place, and make sure that you would be able to find them quickly if the need ever arose.

While you are having this conversation with your teenager, ask them about whether they want to participate in your state’s organ and tissue donation program. They can communicate this preference in the health care directive, and they will also likely need to register as an organ donor with the state.

As a parent, it will be essential that you are able to listen to your child as you discuss these decisions. He or she may have ideas about medical decision-making that are different from your own. As an adult, this is their decision to make. The important thing is that you take the time to discuss these decisions and put together a written plan that ensures that your child’s preferences are honored if the time comes.

Our Plan For Young Adults is great for students and young adults who are just starting out in life and want to begin planning for their future. Our Plan For Young Adults includes a simple last will and testament, durable power of attorney, designation of health care surrogate, a digital estate plan, and more! For more information regarding our Plan For Young Adults, call our office in St. Petersburg, Florida, at (727) 537-6818 to speak to one of our experienced Estate Planning Attorneys today!

Jessi Patton