Do You Need a Power of Attorney?

A power of attorney (POA) is a legal document that gives another person the authority to act on your behalf. Unless you have authorized someone to carry out your medical or financial affairs in the event you are unable to do so, a relative or friend will have to ask the court to appoint a guardian.

Regardless of your age or health, it’s better to prepare now — and hope you never need a POA — than to force your loved ones to make difficult choices without knowing your wishes. By executing a power of attorney, you can select the person you trust, protect your family’s privacy, and usually keep the courts out of it.

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Here are three types of powers of attorney to consider.

Durable power of attorney (DPOA) for health care (also called a health-care proxy). This health directive enables you to appoint a representative who would make medical decisions for you if you are unable to make them yourself. You can appoint anyone of legal age (usually 18 or older) and specify how much power your agent will have. A health directive should be HIPAA compliant so your representative can access your private medical information if it becomes necessary.

A living will is not a power of attorney, but it can complement your DPOA for health care and help your representative make difficult decisions. A living will allows you to outline which medical procedures you would want to be used to prolong your life, typically in the event of a terminal illness or injury. It might also include instructions on pain management and other specific wishes. In some states, a living will may be called by a different name, such as a health-care declaration or instructions for health care.

Durable power of attorney for finances. A DPOA for finances enables you to authorize someone to act on your behalf in financial and legal matters. The person you designate as your agent could pay everyday expenses, watch over your investments, and file taxes, among other tasks. A DPOA may become effective immediately (standby power) or could be triggered when you become physically or mentally incapacitated (springing power).

Limited power of attorney. When the power-of-attorney document is tailored for a specific purpose, your agent cannot act outside the scope designated in the document. For example, you may own a home in another state that you want to sell. Instead of traveling to that state to complete all the necessary paperwork, you can authorize a local agent to do this for you. When the transactions to sell the home are complete, the agency relationship ends, and the agent no longer holds any power.

You can select the same person to serve as the agent for your health-care and financial powers of attorney, but you aren’t required to do so. Discuss your wishes with the person you select and let him or her know where you keep the documents. Consider giving copies to your financial advisor, your doctor, and key family members, and review these documents regularly to make sure they continue to express your wishes. You can revoke a power of attorney by completing a revocation paper.

Be sure to consult with an attorney who is familiar with the laws of your state. Your appointed representative may not be able to do business in a state other than the state in which your durable power of attorney was executed, so you may want to execute a DPOA in each state where you own real estate or do business.

Some banks and other financial institutions may not recognize your DPOA and will require you to execute their own forms. Contact any bank, insurance company, or other financial institution with which you do business and ask about its policies regarding DPOAs.

Keep in mind that a power of attorney will expire upon your death. At that time, the executor of your estate will take over the responsibility of handling your financial affairs and carrying out your wishes.

 
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