Protecting Your Grown Child During a Medical Crisis

Highland Park mom Sheri Warsh still vividly recalls the frantic 5 a.m. phone call she received from her son’s college roommate in October 2011.


Joey, 18 and a freshman at the University of Michigan, was being transported by ambulance to an area hospital with severe chest pains.

“My son was petrified, in a lot of pain and wasn’t able to relay to me what was happening,” Warsh says. “It was an absolute nightmare.”

As scary as that already was, what happened next was the biggest shock of all. When Warsh finally got through to nurses in the ER, she was told the hospital could not release any information to her about her son or the treatments he was receiving.

“When I called the ER, they said, ‘I’m sorry, but do you have a power of attorney?’” Warsh says.

Even though Warsh herself is a practicing attorney who specializes in family estate planning, she and her husband didn’t realize they needed a medical power of attorney for their son.

“The funny thing is I went to half a dozen meetings about the college process, and not one person tells you anything about power of attorney,” Warsh says. “It’s just bizarre.”

Joey suffered from an inflammation to his heart and lungs, and spent the next few months recovering. Immediately upon his return home, the Warshes asked their son to sign a medical power of attorney, granting them the ability to make healthcare decisions on his behalf in the future.

Like the Warshes, many parents forget that once their child reaches the age of 18, they no longer have a say on medical decisions for their children.

In 1996 Congress passed the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA), which prevents the disclosure of medical conditions by health care providers or insurers to anyone not authorized outside of the patient. Since this can raise a problem for parents of college students, it’s important to have a medical power of attorney in place to keep you in the loop in case of emergency.

“The outside world treats them as adults, and so should we,” Warsh says.

Warsh now makes it a point to educate her own clients on the HIPPA laws. She suggests this is a great time for a family to meet with an estate planning attorney to compare privacy forms that specifically address HIPPA laws, both in the state you live in and the state your child goes to school or lives in.

“Every state has their own laws and forms, and some states need a second form to address HIPPA,” Warsh says.

With both a healthcare and a general power of attorney in place, parents are also authorized to sign tax returns on behalf of young adults either studying or living abroad. They can also transfer money directly into bank accounts or pay tuition to college institutions.

Even after your child graduates from college and is living on their own, giving a parent or adult they trust the power of attorney is key to protecting their own interests and ensuring their wishes, both medically and financially, are carried through.

Tips on getting a Power of Attorney (POA):

  • Discuss the need for power of attorney with your adult child, and determine what type of POA you will seek—general, specific to healthcare or both. Decisions should be made in advance on healthcare issues such as organ donation and terms of life support as well as how finances are to be handled should your adult child become incapacitated.
  • Contact your family planning attorney: Using an attorney skilled in this process will guarantee forms are completed properly for specific both states you and your adult child reside. Remember, the statutes in each state may vary, so you will need to apply for both.
  • If you don’t have an attorney or want to file documents on your own, go to the Illinois General Assembly’s website. Under Estates, you can read details of the Illinois Power of Attorney Act, and find print-friendly legal short forms that can be used. Keep original and copies of signed POA on file both electronically as well as in a safety deposit box for future use.