Until your child turns 18 years old, you have legal control over all the major decisions in their life: housing, finances, school, health care and even elements of everyday life. But, at 18 years old, your child gains legal control over all of these areas – and more. This means your child will be the one doctors, service coordinators, banks, schools and other places look to for important answers and life decisions.
You might realize that your child isn’t going to be ready to manage all of these things on their own at age 18. A child with a disability or special health care needs might never be able to manage some – or all – of these things without your help.
If this rings true for your child’s situation, you have choices and legal tools that can help protect and support them. Making the right choices for your family is an emotional and complicated decision.
As the Texas Parent to Parent team told us, “Some parents avoid these decisions. But if you do nothing, there could be problems later for your child and family. For example, one parent shared with us that a nonprofit was granted guardianship of her adult son by his father while the son was living with his mother. His mother didn’t know she needed to protect her child from something like that. And the nonprofit then had the legal right to make decisions for the young man.”
We want to help you understand all of your choices – and know how to take steps to make plans.
There are several formal and informal ways to help your child. Some are as simple as getting a joint bank account to help your child manage their money. Others might involve getting a lawyer or going to court.
Here are a few options that will give you the legal right to help your child in important areas of their life without involving the court system. You can read descriptions of these on our legal tools page.
There are also many less formal options for supporting your adult child – like finding supportive housing and having a network of people connected to your child. Your child might also use a Medicaid waiver program to get support services for living at home or in the community. Many of these options are not legal tools but can still give your child important help.
Each legal tool has its plusses and minuses, its benefits and risks. This section gives basic information we gathered from other parents about some of the choices. We include it to help you learn more, but it is not legal or financial advice.
Supported Decision-Making: In 2015, Texas became the first state to have supported decision-making as a legal option. The law says that an adult with a disability can make their own choice to sign a supported decision-making agreement without anyone asking or telling them to. This agreement lets your child get help managing their life without guardianship restrictions. They can sign an agreement that allows you access to the information you need to help them make decisions in health care, education, housing or finances. Then you can help them understand the information and consider their options—and help them make and communicate their decisions. Supported decision-making allows your child to keep more of their legal rights and independence than a guardianship.
In some of the same ways, a power of attorney lets you share control over certain life decisions with your child. Your child can allow you to have the legal power to make certain decisions for them if they cannot.
Guardianship: If you believe that your child is incapacitated – meaning they aren’t able to manage their life even with the supports listed above in place – you can ask the court for guardianship of your adult child. The court must approve this. You can read more about the process of applying on our guardianship page or read about one parent’s story about applying for guardianship for her son.
Informal Supports or Doing Nothing When Your Child Turns 18: Doing nothing or using informal supports gives your child full independence and doesn’t cost much money. However, it’s important to think about your child’s needs and abilities for adulthood well before they turn 18. If your child isn’t ready to manage their life independently, having no legal protections in place also comes with risks. For example, your child can make financial, housing or legal decisions without you. They can choose where and how they want to live. If they aren’t able to make these decisions safely on their own, someone else can step in and ask the court for legal protections like guardianship.
A supported decision-making-agreement gives you the right to help your adult child with decisions, but your child has to be able to understand and agree that they need help. Putting your child under guardianship takes away some of their legal rights. For example, they might not be able to vote or get married independently.
If you want to use powers of attorney, you share more control with your child, but your child has to be able to understand the meaning, content and effect of a power of attorney for it to be valid.
Know that no choice is permanent. You can start by putting no legal tools in place and then use a supported decision-making agreement, powers of attorney or file for guardianship when your child is older if you see a need. Or you might ask your child to sign a supported decision-making agreement or power of attorney for health care at 18 years old but not get involved in their housing decisions. You can use different options as your child’s abilities change and develop.
Here are some questions that other parents have found helpful to ask themselves when thinking about how to best support their child:
As you ask these questions, you may want to talk to other people affected by the decision or who can help you make this choice.
Legal issues affect many families of children with disabilities and special health care needs as their children approach age 18. We are not offering specific legal or financial planning advice. Rather, we are sharing what we have learned from talking to parents and lawyers who have been involved in these matters for many years. We recommend talking to your own lawyer or financial advisor for advice related to your specific situation. You can contact the State Bar of Texas by phone or online for lawyer recommendations.
“Before my daughter turned 18, I was worried about how to support her as an adult. I was so thankful to learn about a Supported Decision-Making agreement. This is a legal document that allows me to gather information and discuss it with my daughter so she has all the information she needs to make an informed decision. She still makes the final decision but I have a part in helping her get there.”
“I was ecstatic and relieved when I obtained guardianship for my daughter because I knew it was time, due to her change in needs. It took a lot of work and it gave me peace of mind.”
“My son turned 21 last year. I dreaded him turning 18 because I knew that it was the start of him transitioning into adulthood. I often told people that I felt the same way I did when he was born. So many new terms and new systems to learn and navigate. There is less support in finding those answers [for older children], especially when your child has significant health care needs. I hated losing the continuity of doctors, therapists, etc. The adult doctors are not used to dealing with people like my son and half the time I can see the fear and cluelessness in their eyes. We did guardianship because it was the best option for my son. But I hated having to prove that we were capable of caring for him, especially since we had been doing it for 18 years.”
“When my son was in his early teens, he started having some mental health issues. Because he struggled with making decisions, I was concerned about how to handle things when he turned 18. I learned about the different Powers of Attorney that could be obtained with his approval and how they would allow me to speak on his behalf for medical, financial, educational and other issues. We have been successfully using Powers of Attorney for several years. It has brought so much peace to me knowing that I can continue to speak on his behalf and that he trusts me to do that.”
“I've spoken to many parents who are unaware and completely overwhelmed by the transfer of legal rights at 18. This happens particularly for certain cultures. They always say, ‘What does that mean? In my culture…’ Either a friend or the school has told them they need guardianship. They reach out to us [a statewide parent organization] in fear, unaware of the options. Many parents are relieved to know there are more options than guardianship. They don't want to attempt getting guardianship because they don't want their young adult’s rights removed or it's so expensive or they are so unfamiliar with the legal options that they would rather wait and see. They're always grateful to have someone to talk to about options and guardianship.”