A power of attorney is an important legal document in your estate plan that allows a person, known as the principal, to designate a person of their choice to become their agent, acting on their behalf. This is usually done when the principal is unable to manage their financial affairs due to disability, illness or incapacity. It must be done while the principal is still competent, notes Delco Times in the article “What’s the difference between guardianship and power of attorney?” There are also instances when power of attorney is used when the principal is unable to conduct their own affairs, because they are traveling or are deployed overseas. A good estate plan includes more than just a will. A power of attorney is an important part.
Related documents are the health care power of attorney and the durable power of attorney. A durable financial power of attorney is a document where the principal designates the powers that the agent may exercise over their finances. The powers granted by this document can be used by the agent, regardless of the principal’s capacity or disability.
The principal has the option to grant very broad authority to their agent. For instance, the principal could give their agent the authority to gift all their assets, while they are still living. That’s why it is very important for the specific provisions in the power of attorney to be carefully reviewed and tailored to the principal’s wishes. There are risks in naming an agent, since they are able to exercise complete control over the principal’s assets. The agent must be 100% trustworthy.
A health care power of attorney allows an agent to make decisions about the principal’s health. Note that this document is operative only when a copy is provided to the attending physician, and the physician determines that the principal is incompetent.
Both health care power of attorney and financial power of attorney may be revoked by the principal at any time and for any reason.
If the principal has not had these documents prepared in advance and then becomes incompetent by reason of injury, illness, or mental health issues, they may not have the legal right to sign the power of attorney. When this happens, it is necessary for a guardianship proceeding to occur, so that other people may be named to take charge of the person’s financial and health affairs. Advance planning is always preferred.
If an individual is born with a disability that impacts their capacity and upon attaining legal age, does not have the capacity to sign a power of attorney, then a guardianship proceeding will be necessary. The court must determine if the person is truly incapacitated and if there might be an alternative to appointing a guardian. Once the guardian is appointed, the principal no longer has the legal right to make decisions on their own behalf.
A guardianship is a much more restrictive tool than a power of attorney. For one thing, the power of attorney generally does not need the involvement of the court. There is always the possibility that a guardian is appointed who does not know the family or the individual. A durable power of attorney allows a person to appoint someone they know and trust to help them and their family, if and when they become incapacitated.
Speak with your estate planning attorney about how power of attorney works, and when guardianship issues might arise. Being prepared in advance by having the right documents in place, is always better than having the family going to court and hoping that the right decisions are made.
Reference: Delco Times (May 8, 2019) “What’s the difference between guardianship and power of attorney?”