Until the end of your child’s 17th year, 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.
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 these ring true for your child’s situation, you have choices that can help protect and support them. Making the right ones for your family is an emotional and complicated decision. We want to help you understand all of your choices.
There are a number of 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 child – like using services from a Medicaid Waiver program (if your child has one), finding supportive housing and having a network of people connected to your child. Many of these are not a legal tools, but can still give your child important help.
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 the restrictions of guardianship. They can sign an agreement that allows you access to information that you need to help them make decisions in areas like health care, education, housing, or finances. Then you can help them understand the information and consider their options as well as make and communicate their decisions. Supported decision-making allows your child to keep more of their legal rights and independence than a 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 for guardianship on our guardianship page or read about one parent’s story about applying for guardianship for her son.
Each of these choices has its plusses and minuses, its benefits and risks.
Doing nothing, or using informal supports gives your child full independence and doesn’t cost much money. However, if your child isn’t ready to manage their life on their own, it also comes with risks. For example, your child can make financial or legal decisions without talking to you. 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. For example, your ex-spouse or adult protective services could ask the court to grant them 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 on their own.
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 doing nothing 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. 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 find 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 who are affected by the decision, or who can help you in making this choice.
Legal issues affect many families of children with disabilities and special health care needs as their children approach age 18. Note that in this section, 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. For advice related to your specific situation, we recommend consulting your own lawyer or financial advisor. You can contact the State Bar of Texas by phone or online for lawyer recommendations.