All too often, people wait until it is too late to execute a power of attorney. It is uncomfortable to think about giving someone full access to our finances, while we are still competent. However, a power of attorney can be created that is fully exercisable only when needed, according to a useful article “Power of attorney can be tailored to circumstances” from The News-Enterprise. Some estate planning attorneys believe that the power of attorney, or POA, is actually the second most important estate planning document after a will. Here’s what a POA can do for you.
The term POA is a reference to the document, but it also is used to refer to the person named as the agent in the document.
Generally speaking, any POA creates a fiduciary relationship, for either legal or financial purposes. A Medical or Healthcare POA creates a relationship for healthcare decisions. Sometimes these are for a specific purpose or for a specific period of time. However, a Durable POA is created to last until death or until it is revoked. It can be created to cover a wide array of needs.
Here is the critical fact: a POA of any kind needs to be executed, that is, agreed to and signed by a person who is competent to make legal decisions. The problem occurs when family members or spouse do not realize they need a POA, until their loved one is not legally competent and does not understand what they are signing.
Incompetent or incapacitated individuals may not sign legal documents. Further, the law protects people from improperly signing, by requiring two witnesses to observe the individual signing.
The law does allow those with limited competency to sign estate planning documents, so long as they are in a moment of lucidity at the time of the signing. However, this is tricky and can be dangerous, as legal issues may be raised for all involved, if capacity is challenged later on.
If someone has become incompetent and has not executed a valid power of attorney, a loved one will need to apply for guardianship. This is a court process that is expensive, takes several months and leads to the court being involved in many aspects of the person’s life. The basics of this process: three professionals are needed to personally assess the “respondent,” the person who is said to be incompetent. The respondent loses all rights to make decisions of any kind for themselves. They also lose the right to vote.
A power of attorney can be executed quickly and does not require the person to lose any rights.
The biggest concern to executing a power of attorney, is that the person is giving an agent the control of their money and property. This is true, but the POA can be created so that it does not hand over this control immediately.
This is where the “springing” power of attorney comes in. Springing POA means that the document, while executed immediately, does not become effective for use by the agent, until a certain condition is met. The document can be written that the POA becomes in effect, if the person is deemed mentally incompetent by a doctor. The springing clause gives the agent the power to act if and when it is necessary for someone else to take over the individual’s affairs.
Having an estate planning attorney create the power of attorney that is best suited for each individual’s situation is the most sensible way to provide the protection of a POA, without worrying about giving up control while one is competent.
Reference: The News-Enterprise (Feb. 24, 2020) “Power of attorney can be tailored to circumstances”