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My Baby’s 18: What 18-Year-Olds Can Legally Do

We marked a new milestone in my house: Baby’s first tattoo!

Ok, she’s no longer a baby, but she’ll always be my firstborn. She just turned 18, which means she can do a lot of things now that she’s “officially an adult.” Of course, we parents know our teens still have a lot of growing up to do. But among other things, they now get to experience the joy of marking themselves permanently—in some states, at least.

Once your teen turns 18, what can they legally do? The options range from the silly (purchasing spray paint) to the more serious (enlisting in the military). How does this milestone affect your relationship? What should parents know and what are some practical ways to prepare for this time?

What Changes When You Turn 18?

Being 18 means your child can purchase lottery tickets, buy fireworks, own a credit card, and get married—all without your involvement. They can sue and be sued in civil court, serve on a jury, be an organ donor, and register to vote.

They also need to sign medical access and decision forms for you to stay involved in their healthcare. Gisela Voss learned this in the worst way possible when her 19-year-old son traveled cross country with his friends. After a climbing accident, they couldn’t get information about him from the hospital in Seattle other than, “He’s in surgery.” Tragically, the accident was fatal. Even after that, she had to hire a lawyer to get information.

“We watch over our babies for 6,570 days,” she says. “Overnight on Day 6,571, they are legally adults. Medical and financial forms are a necessary scaffolding in the transition to young adulthood.”

Trust and estates attorney Naomi Becker Collier of Pashman Stein Walder Hayden in New Jersey recommends that a new 18-year-old sign a durable power of attorney (appointing parents to act as their agent, allowing them to continue to assist with financial needs), a healthcare proxy (appointing parents to act on their behalf in healthcare matters as needed) and, at a minimum, a HIPAA release (legally necessary to allow medical professionals to speak to parents about their child’s care).

Though there are forms and templates available online, consider that there may be desired provisions that an experienced attorney can include in customized documents that won’t be available in an online form. In addition, engaging an attorney will “provide the child with an education and understanding of the documents that he or she is signing,” Collier says.

Most durable powers of attorney and health care proxies are effective upon signing (unless stated otherwise), so they should be put in place once a child has turned 18 or as soon after as possible, Collier adds.

Have your attorney keep on file a hard copy of each form, put your own hard copies in a fire-safe box at home, and email copies to all parties—including stepparents, if applicable—so they’re readily available. The last thing you want to be doing in an emergency situation far from home is gathering necessary documentation.

As for how to approach your child about these documents, an open and frank discussion is best, Collier says. “Presenting the issue to the child and encouraging discussion with a legal professional that can help them understand the documents and the power that they would be giving (and can ultimately take away from parents when and if the time is right) is a way to empower a child to take steps to protect [themselves] as an adult,” she says.

The Parents’ Role

Parent educator Vicki Hoefle says that in a child’s mind, their 18th birthday means they’ve reached adulthood and they have all the rights and privileges afforded adults. “Unfortunately, they don’t magically mature because they hit 18,” she adds. “Parents, on the other hand, still see their child as needing guidance as they enter into this risky and less ‘parent-managed’ stage of life. Finding a balance and developing mutual respect for each perspective is the top priority.”

Communication with your child also requires an update, Hoefle says, since speaking to your young adult children as if they still need daily guidance and feedback can cause big divides.

Parents should know that turning 18 can be tough. “There’s a lot of pressure. Everyone’s asking … what they’re going to do with their life,” says Hoefle. “They can hardly tell you what they want next week.”

This is the time to be a mentor and supporter and to practice listening more and talking less. “This can be a joyous time if we accept that our kids have launched and we need to ask permission to get a seat in their life,” she says. “They don’t have to let us in, and if we try to break down the door, they will lock it.”

If you’re lucky, your child will still rely on you. My daughter included me in the process of getting her tattoo by having me research tattoo studios, helping her figure out a design and placement, and going with her to have it done. It was her 18th birthday present, but it turns out we both benefited from the experience.

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