What comes to mind when you hear the words “power of attorney”?
An important legal document? The key to successful caregiving? All of the above?
If you thought “all of the above,” you’re on the right track. The power of attorney is a powerful legal document. It can give tremendous authority to another person, including the right to access your bank accounts and to make decisions for you. And, in times of crisis or declining health, a power of attorney is the essential tool in your caregiver’s toolkit.
Granting someone power of attorney allows them to make decisions for you. Power of attorney is a relatively simple and inexpensive procedure.
Types of powers of attorney
There are two types of power of attorney: Financial and Healthcare. It’s possible to grant power of attorney for your financial affairs to one person and power of attorney for your medical decisions to another person. Of course, you can always have one person do both.
Financial Power of Attorney
When you give someone power of attorney for your finances, you allow that person to manage your bank accounts, house, and any other assets you may have. If you have joint accounts with another person (your spouse, partner, or a parent, for example), that person can probably manage your finances without power of attorney. Still, if you have any accounts that are only in your name, power of attorney may be necessary.
Healthcare Power of Attorney
Giving someone power of attorney for your healthcare allows that person to make choices for your care. Talk to this person and other loved ones about what type of medical treatment you want and don’t want if you’re unable to make decisions for yourself.
Think about who you might want to make decisions for you if you can’t make them. If you decide you want to grant someone power of attorney for finance and healthcare, talk to an attorney so the proper documents can be prepared. Granting or revoking power of attorney must comply with state laws to be valid, so you want to be sure everything is done properly.
The risks of not planning ahead
A well-drafted power of attorney helps your caregiver help you. It can keep the gears of your life turning if you cannot.
This means everything from applying for financial assistance or a public benefit such as Medicaid to making sure your utilities stay on and your taxes are paid. Trying to do any of those tasks without the proper document is almost impossible.
When I was my mom’s caregiver, I had to help her without a power of attorney for six months. She hadn’t created one before her diagnosis and was physically unable to see an attorney after.
It’s an understatement to say how stressful it was to get things accomplished and advocate without one.
Prepare documents early, update frequently
Although memory loss alone does not prevent a person from signing legal documents, patients can’t sign a power of attorney if they are not “competent.” Basically, this means that they are not able to understand the implications of the document.
The only recourse if a person is not competent to sign legal documents may be a court procedure known as a guardianship or conservatorship. These can be expensive, time-consuming and contested by family members who don’t agree.
Assets can be depleted quickly, and relationships strained. The biggest risk as the care recipient is that you may not have a say in who will be the person the court appoints to make decisions for you.
So, please, don’t delay. All adults, from the age of 18, should have a power of attorney in place.
And if you have one, consider whether now is the time to update it. If you’ve moved states of residence, if you have property in multiple states like a vacation home, if you live in a state that requires you to renew your power of attorney occasionally, or if your power of attorney is more than a few years old in any state, it’s well worth your time to speak with a qualified lawyer.
Your lawyer can also explain how to create your documents to limit possible exploitation and which additional documents complement your power of attorney.
With thoughtful planning and an understanding of your agent’s authority, a power of attorney will give you peace of mind that your wishes will be followed and your best interests protected in times of crisis.
If you need help finding or affording a lawyer, please contact Forge’s Client Services Coordinator, Janet Dees, at (205) 990-5367 or [email protected]. She can refer you to the Bar Association’s pro bono department.
Healthcare Advanced Directive Form, courtesy of UAB