So, you’re 18, or about to turn 18. And you’re getting ready to head off to college and live away from your family for the first time.

What does being an adult mean, in the legal sense? Here’s what it doesn’t mean: deciding how to behave at a campus party.  Not having to be home by “curfew.” Playing instead of working, or working instead of playing. Determining what your career goals are and how to use your next four years to reach them.

All of the above have to do with maturity, not legal adulthood. Studies have shown that the brain continues to mature until the early-to-mid-twenties. Do keep that in mind when making judgement calls during your college life – and do be prepared to be making plenty of potentially life-changing decisions.

But being a legal adult is a very different concept. And it’s important that you and your parents understand that concept.

The most important thing you need to know is that, once you are 18 years old, your parents will not automatically be informed of your actions, your grades or your medical condition. And, unless you sign the proper forms, they cannot be.

If you get bad grades or face disciplinary action, your college will not inform your parents.  If you end up in the ER, the hospital may not be legally able to inform your parents of your medical condition.

What are your rights, and what are your parents’ rights?

When you turn 18, your parents will no longer have the right to access your medical information and college transcripts, nor will they be able to make medical decisions for you – unless you draw up several legal documents for both you and your parents to have on hand in case of emergency. These documents include:

Special Power of Attorney for Health Care and a HIPAA Release Form

If you would like your parents to be able to find out about your medical condition in case of an emergency, you and they will need a properly executed special power of attorney (POA) for health care. Think about this: if for some reason you are unconscious and hospitalized, and they are far away, it’s very possible they will call your hospital and be told that staff cannot disclose your condition due to privacy laws. Even with a POA, it’s possible that privacy concerns will make staff reluctant to disclose information because of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996.  A POA coupled with a HIPAA release form will circumvent those restrictions.

FERPA Release

Do you want your parents to know your college grades? Or about any disciplinary actions? This is a subject you need to broach with them. Since parents are usually the ones footing the bills for their kid’s education, they assume that means they have a right to know what’s going on at with you at school. But legally, once you are 18, their rights under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act revert to you and you alone. In other words, they no longer have access to your educational records; only you do. If your parents insist on having this right as a condition of paying your tuition, and you agree, you can sign a FERPA release to allow them access to your college records. Find out more here

And, here’s another look at the issue of legal adulthood and parents’ rights

The maturation process is happening right now (although there are days when you – or your parents -- might not think so J) and will continue to happen throughout college and beyond. But legal adulthood happens overnight -- literally. Be prepared and make sure your parents are prepared as well, so there are no surprises.