When Your Child With an IEP Turns 18: Your Parental Rights

By Andrew M.I. Lee, JD
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At a Glance

  • In most states, when a child turns 18, she’s considered an adult.

  • As a legal adult, a child may assume some or all of the educational rights previously held by the parent.

  • The school may need to get an adult-age student’s consent to make any changes to her IEP.

You may always think of your son or daughter as a child. But in the eyes of the law, people are considered adults when they turn age 18 to 21 (it varies by state). When your child becomes an adult, the rights and responsibilities you had as a parent belong to your child.

What if your child isn’t ready for the responsibilities of managing her own education? Will you have any say? The transition into adulthood has a lot of implications. Here are some of the key points.

The Age of Adulthood Varies by State

The age of majority—the age when an individual is considered an adult—is determined by state law. In most states, the age of majority is 18. But in a few states, it’s sometime between ages 18 and 21.

How Rights Transfer to Your Child With an IEP

At least a year before a student with an Individual Educational Program (IEP) reaches the age of majority, the school is supposed to notify her about which rights will transfer to her. How they tell her is left up to the states.

In most states, when a student turns 18, she assumes all of the educational rights the parents had. This includes taking the main role in developing her IEP. The school now:

  • Invites the student to participate in IEP meetings

  • Needs the student’s permission to invite her parents

  • Requires the student’s consent for an evaluation or reevaluation

  • Needs the student’s approval for any change in placement or services

The student also has the right to dispute school decisions through the process of mediation and due process.

The student takes over the right to give—or deny—informed consent to any action the school wants to take. This means that if the school wants to change the student’s services in any way, it needs the student’s permission, not the parent’s.

But not all states work this way. In some states, only some of the educational rights transfer at the age of majority. To find out the rules in your state, contact your state’s department of education. Your local Parent Training and Information Center will also have this information.

Keep in mind that a student’s right to special education has an age limit. Eligibility for an IEP ends when she reaches the age of 22, or when she graduates from high school with a regular diploma (whichever comes first). (Earning a Certificate of Attendance doesn’t end your child’s eligibility, but it may have other drawbacks.)

Exceptions to the Age of Majority

Some states have a legal process called “guardianship” to figure out if the student can handle these new responsibilities and rights. If the state finds that the student doesn’t have the capacity to make decisions, it may appoint someone to represent her. This can be the parent or another person. To navigate this process, you may need to consult with an attorney.

Preparing Your Child for Independence

There are things you can do to help ease your child into her adult role.

  • Help your child develop a good relationship with the IEP team. Beginning in high school, students typically are invited to IEP meetings. They’re expected to play a major part, especially when it comes to transition planning (figuring out what to do after high school). Encourage your child to participate actively in those discussions with the team.

  • Let your child do the talking. Rather than speaking for your child, let her assume center stage at IEP and other meetings. If she gains experience advocating for herself, it will be easier for her to keep doing so as an adult.

  • Stay involved. When your child reaches the age of majority, your participation isn’t required. But the school or your child can invite you to attend IEP meetings. After all, you’re deeply knowledgeable about your child’s needs and talents, so your input is valuable.

Key Takeaways

  • When your child becomes an adult, the rights you held as a parent typically transfer over to her.

  • If a child isn’t seen as capable of handling these rights and responsibilities, the state may appoint the parent or another individual to represent her.

  • Educating yourself and preparing your child for the age of majority can help make the transition into adulthood smoother for everyone.

About the Author

About the Author

Andrew M.I. Lee, JD 

is an editor and former attorney who strives to help people understand complex legal, education, and parenting issues.

Reviewed by

Reviewed by

Patricia H. Latham, JD 

is an attorney and mediator and the co-author of eight books on disability and the law.

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