The Second Most Powerful Estate Planning Document: Power of Attorney

All too often, people wait until it’s too late to execute a power of attorney. It’s 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’s 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”

I’m a Fiduciary—What Does That Mean?

There are any number of pitfalls that may occur when administering an estate, a trust or another person’s finances under a Power of Attorney (POA). Fiduciary duties are the highest under the law and the fiduciary is legally required to put the interests of the person they are representing above their own. The most common problem for a fiduciary is not taking their responsibilities seriously enough, says the article “What does it mean to serve as a fiduciary? from the New Hampshire Union Leader.

You can avoid some common pitfalls, if you keep the following in mind:

Know the governing instrument. A fiduciary must abide by the terms of the governing instrument, which might be a Power of Attorney (POA), trust, or another legal document. The powers you hold are limited to those granted in the document. There are times when even though you have a power or the ability to do something, it’s not in the best interest of the grantor. Let’s say the trust gives you as a trustee the power to make distributions to a beneficiary. If the beneficiary has sufficient independent resources, doing so might be a breach of your duties. In the same way, the ability to make gifts that is given by a POA, doesn’t mean you should automatically start making gifts.

Maintain extremely detailed records. Do this for two reasons. You have a duty to do so, and you need good records in case anyone claims that you did something wrong. Make sure that your records have enough details so that any expense or expenditure can be documented and explained.

Transparency is the best approach. Every situation is different, and family dynamics differs, but if you can, speak with family members before making any transactions. If they object, you can decide whether or not to proceed, or to petition the probate court to give the court’s blessing in advance. In this case, it is better to ask permission in advance, than ask for forgiveness after the fact.

Never mix your personal or business funds with that of the estate. This is one of the biggest problems for people who have never been a fiduciary before. If you are a fiduciary for more than one estate, then you’ll need to have funds and property completely separate from each other.

Fiduciary duties need to be treated with great care to avoid any liability and litigation. If you are not prepared to be a fiduciary, you could decide to decline the role. Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney, if you have any reservations about taking on this responsibility.

Reference: New Hampshire Union Leader (December 7, 2019) “What does it mean to serve as a fiduciary?

 

Will the Power of Attorney You Sign Today Work for Your Executor?

These are all good questions, as Powers of Attorney (POA) are some of the most commonly used estate planning documents and they are also some of the most misunderstood estate planning documents, says nwi.com in a recent article “Estate Planning: Do Powers of Attorney lapse?”

A POA (Power of Attorney) is a document that authorizes another person to act on behalf of the person making or signing the document. The person named in a POA is also referred to as the Attorney-in-Fact. Some POAs grant a wide range of authority while others are limited to a specific action. An estate planning attorney can create a POA that suits a person’s particular needs which is far better than a generic document that may not be accepted because it is too broad.

Durable Powers of Attorney don’t usually exist for a set period of time. There are also limited or special POAs that have a date or a time frame and at the end of that time frame or upon that date they terminate. It’s important to note that all POAs terminate upon the death of the maker or principal. The only power that can survive after the death of the maker is the authority to dispose of the maker’s remains, and that varies by state.

A POA can also be terminated at any time by the principal. This termination should be in writing and it can be terminated by revoking the POA within the terms of a new POA or by execution of a revocation. Either way, the person should notify the AIF  that they no longer have the authority to act under the revoked POA, and any entity who may have a copy of the revoked POA should be notified that it is no longer valid.  A qualified estate planning attorney in your state will know what rules apply in your area.

The AIF serves because the principal has chosen them, and if that changes, they are removed from their responsibilities as long as the principal is competent.

Estate planning attorneys are concerned less with the date of the POA as they are with the simple fact that banks and other financial institutions are reluctant to accept POAs that were created many years ago. In that case, usually an affidavit affirming that the document is still valid and the AIF has the authority to act under it is enough.

However, it is recommended that when you have your estate plan reviewed every three or four years, you also have your estate planning attorney update the Power of Attorney. This way there is less of a chance that a bank or other institution will balk at the document. The same goes for your health care proxy, also known as a Health Care Power of Attorney.

Reference: nwi.com (November 3, 2019) “Estate Planning: Do Powers of Attorney lapse?”

 

Everyone Should Have a Power of Attorney and Healthcare Power of Attorney

Before snowbirds begin their seasonal journey to warmer climates it’s time to be sure that they have the important legal documents in place, advises LimaOhio.com in a recent article “Different seasons and documents, same peace of mind.” The two documents are a healthcare power of attorney and a financial power of attorney and they should be prepared and be ready to be used at any time.

These documents name another person to make healthcare and financial decisions, in case you are not able to make those decisions for yourself. We never think that anything will really happen to us until it does. Having these documents properly prepared and easily accessible helps our loved ones. They are the ones who will need the powers given by the documents, without them they cannot act in a timely manner.

If traveling between a home state and a winter home, it is wise to have a set of documents that align with the laws of both states. It may be necessary to have a separate set of documents for each state, if the laws differ.

Financial powers of attorney typically need updating more often than healthcare powers of attorney. The law has changed in recent years, and there are a number of specific powers that need to be stated precisely, so that the document can grant those powers. This includes the power to gift assets and make a person eligible for nursing home and other healthcare assistance, like Medicaid.

If these documents are not in place and are needed, the only way that someone else can make decisions for the person, is to become a guardian of that person. That includes spouses. Many people think that the fact that two people are married gives them every right, but that is not the case. Guardianship takes considerably more time and costs more than these two documents. It should be noted that once guardianship is established, the person who is the guardian will need to report to the court on a regular basis.

Another document that needs to be in place is a living will or advance directive. This is a document prepared to instruct others as to your wishes for end-of-life care. The document is created when a person is mentally competent and expresses their wishes for what they want to happen, if they are being kept alive by artificial means. For loved ones, this document is a blessing, as it lets them know very clearly what their family members wishes are.

Peace of mind is a wonderful thing to take with you as you prepare for a warm winter in a different climate. Talk with an estate planning attorney to be sure that your estate planning documents will be acceptable in your winter home.

Reference: LimaOhio.com (Oct. 26, 2019) “Different seasons and documents, same peace of mind”

 

What Do I Need to Know About Powers of Attorney?
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What Do I Need to Know About Powers of Attorney?

People frequently devote their efforts to their wills and trusts. Choosing a person to serve as their power of attorney is often a last-minute decision.

Forbes’ article, “9 Things You Need To Know About Power Of Attorney,” reminds us that it’s an important decision and not one that should be taken lightly. Let’s look at what you need to know to get your POA right.

Understand what it means. With a POA, you select a person as your attorney-in-fact (or agent) to make financial decisions for you. This gives your agent control over any assets held in your name alone.

Look at your options. There are two types of powers of attorney. A durable power of attorney is effective when you sign it. It survives your incapacity. A springing power of attorney goes into effect when you’re incapacitated. A springing power of attorney is more difficult to use. Your agent must prove that you’re incapacitated usually through some written confirmation by one or more physicians. Even though the document states how to do that, banks frequently are hesitant to make that determination. Thus, most attorneys advise you to execute a durable power of attorney and often will hold the original POA until it is needed, as an extra protection.

Make a wise decision. You may wonder if your agent can steal your money, and unfortunately the answer is “yes.” Your agent will have access to your financial accounts and could use your funds for his own benefit. The agent has a fiduciary duty to use the assets only for your benefit or as you direct in the document so you could later sue the agent for theft and misuse of your funds.

Abuse. Depending on the terms of the power of attorney, your agent may have the ability to amend the ownership of your bank accounts or change your beneficiary designations. This is common in second marriages. The transfer often occurs right before the spouse passes away, typically when the husband is dying in the hospital. If the husband’s will leaves his large bank accounts to his children from his first marriage, the second wife with power of attorney can add herself as a joint owner of the account. When the husband dies, she’s the surviving joint owner and liquidates the account. Siblings also do this to direct mom’s assets away from their brothers or sisters.

Designate an alternate. If your agent dies before you or is incapacitated, you should appoint a back-up who can act.

Read through the document. Take a look though the powers listed in the document and make sure you’re comfortable with what it allows.

The POA dies with you. Once you pass away, the POA is no longer valid. Your will then controls what happens to your assets.

Your revocable trust should be funded. If you fund your trust during your lifetime, you may not need to use your power of attorney. However, you should still have one just in case. Ask an experienced estate planning attorney about this.

Reference: Forbes (September 12, 2019) “9 Things You Need To Know About Power Of Attorney”

 

Estate Planning Basics Everyone Needs

The discomfort most people have with the knowledge of their own mortality makes it challenging for some people to do the estate planning that needs to occur before an emergency occurs. However, according to the Gettysburg Times’ recent article “Essentials necessary for estate planning,” the best course of action is to do the planning now, when there is no urgency. Having detailed plans in place to protect loved ones from possible complications, costs and added stress in the future is a gift you can give to those you love.

There are any number of legal documents and strategies used to accommodate the varied situations of life, including family dynamics and asset levels. An estate planning attorney licensed in your state will have the ability to create a plan and the documents that suit your personal situation. The three documents discussed in the following section are generally considered to be the most important for anyone to have.

Power of Attorney or POA—This document gives legal authority to another individual or entity named by the signer to perform certain acts on your behalf, when you cannot do so because of illness, injury or incapacity. There are many different types of POA, from a “full” POA, to a “limited” POA that is created solely for a specific purpose such as a real estate transaction.

Living Will—This is a detailed health care directive that allows you to list your wishes regarding several medical procedures and life-sustaining treatments. These treatments include resuscitations, breathing assistance, feeding tubes and similar medical matters. You want to have this in place to spare your loved ones the emotional anguish of trying to decide what you would have wanted. They’ll know, because you specifically told them in this document.

Last Will and Testament—When prepared correctly, and that includes signed, witnessed, and notarized, a will is used by the “testator” (the person making the will) to provide the legal wishes regarding what should happen to their minor children (if any) and assets upon death.

What happens if you don’t have these documents? It is likely that your loved ones will need to go to court to have someone named as your executor, which is the person who is in charge of your estate. Depending upon the laws of your state, that person may be a family member, or it may end up being a family member who you haven’t spoken to in decades. It is far better to take the time to have a will created properly with an estate planning attorney, so your family is protected, and your wishes are fulfilled.

The best time to do this is when there is no crisis. Estate plans also require regular monitoring and updating. Life circumstances change, estate and tax laws change and new opportunities may present themselves. Speak with your estate planning attorney now and create your plan for the future.

Reference: Gettysburg Times (July 27, 2019) “Essentials necessary for estate planning”

Suggested Key Terms: Estate Planning, Last Will and Testament, Power of Attorney, POA, Living Will,

Avoiding a Family Feud When Choosing a Power of Attorney

The challenge in tasking a family member or trusted friend is not just making sure they have the necessary skills, but to navigate family dynamics so that no fights occur says Considerable.com in the article “How to assign power of attorney without sparking a family feud.” Every family situation is different, but in almost all cases, transparency is the best bet.

Start by understanding exactly what is meant by power of attorney, how it functions within the estate plan, and how siblings can all be involved to some degree with the family’s decision-making process.

Power of attorney is a term that gives an individual, or sometimes, individuals, the legal authority to act on behalf of someone else. It is usually used when a person, usually a parent or a spouse, is unable to make decisions for themselves because of illness or injury. It must be noted that power of attorney relates to financial and legal decisions. There are methods to address making decisions for another person for their health care or end-of-life decisions, but they are not accomplished by the power of attorney (POA).

It should be noted that there is a distinct difference between power of attorney and executor of the estate. Power of attorney is in effect while the person who has granted the authority is alive, but unable to act on their own behalf. The executor of the estate assumes responsibility for managing the estate through the probate process. While they are two different roles, they are often held by the same person, usually an adult child who is responsible and has good decision-making skills.

There are different types of power of attorney roles. The most common is the general power of attorney, followed by the health care. The general power of attorney refers to the person who has the authority to handle financial, business or private affairs. If a parent grants power of attorney to one of their children, that child then has the authority to act on behalf of the parent.

Trouble starts if the relationship between siblings is rocky, or if major decisions are made without discussions with siblings.

It’s not easy for siblings when one of them has been granted the power of attorney. That means they must accept the inherent authority of the chosen sibling to make all decisions for their parent. The sibling with the power of authority will have a smoother path if they can be sensitive to how this makes the others feel.

“Mom always liked you best,” is not a sentence that should come from a 50 year old, but often childhood dynamics can reappear during these times.

Remember that the power of attorney is also a fiduciary obligation, meaning that the person who holds it is required to act in the best interest of the parent and not their own. If the relationship between siblings is not good, or there’s no transparency when decisions are made, things can get bumpy.

Here are some tips for parents to bear in mind when deciding who should be their power of attorney:

  • Understand the great power that is being given to another person.
  • Make sure the person who is to be named POA understands the entire range of responsibilities they will have.
  • The siblings who have not been named will need to understand and respect the arrangement. They should also be aware of the potential for problems, keeping their eyes open and being watchful without being suspicious.

Parents should discuss these appointments with their estate planning attorney. Their years of experience in navigating family issues and dynamics give the attorneys insights that will be helpful with assigning these important tasks.

Reference: Considerable.com (July 10, 2019) “How to assign power of attorney without sparking a family feud”

 

Power of Attorney: Why You’re Never Too Young

When that time comes, having a power of attorney is a critical document to have. The power of attorney is among a handful of estate planning documents that help with decision making, when a person is too ill, injured or lacks the mental capacity to make their own decisions. The article, “Why you’re never too young for a power of attorney” from Lancaster Online, explains what these documents are, and what purpose they serve.

There are three basic power of attorney documents: financial, limited and health care.

You’re never too young or too old to have a power of attorney. If you don’t, a guardian must be appointed in a court proceeding, and they will make decisions for you. If the guardian who is appointed does not know you or your family, they may make decisions that you would not have wanted. Anyone over the age of 18 should have a power of attorney.

It’s never too early, but it could be too late. If you become incapacitated, you cannot sign a POA. Then your family is faced with needing to pursue a guardianship and will not have the ability to make decisions on your behalf, until that’s in place.

You’ll want to name someone you trust implicitly and who is also going to be available to make decisions when time is an issue.

For a medical or healthcare power of attorney, it is a great help if the person lives nearby and knows you well. For a financial power of attorney, the person may not need to live nearby, but they must be trustworthy and financially competent.

Always have back-up agents, so if your primary agent is unavailable or declines to serve, you have someone who can step in on your behalf.

You should also work with an estate planning attorney to create the power of attorney you need. You may want to assign select powers to a POA, like managing certain bank accounts but not the sale of your home, for instance. An estate planning attorney will be able to tailor the POA to your exact needs. They will also make sure to create a document that gives proper powers to the people you select. You want to ensure that you don’t create a POA that gives someone the ability to exploit you.

Any of the POAs you have created should be updated on a fairly regular basis. Over time, laws change, or your personal situation may change. Review the documents at least annually to be sure that the people you have selected are still the people you want taking care of matters for you.

Most important of all, don’t wait to have a POA created. It’s an essential part of your estate plan, along with your last will and testament. Contact an experienced estate planning attorney to ensure that you have the correct power of attorney in place.

Reference: Lancaster Online (May 15, 2019) “Why you’re never too young for a power of attorney”

 

Make Sure Your Power of Attorney Works When Needed

If you present a POA (Power of Attorney) to a bank and the agents are described as Bill and Samantha, for instance, instead of Samantha or Bill, the bank clerk may bristle. John as agent under power of attorney with Mary as successor agent is more likely to be acceptable. The use of the word “and” in a POA often presents a problem to banks. Did the document get drafted with the intent that Bill and Samantha both be present for any transactions?

In Pennsylvania, major changes were made to the POA law in 2014 that addressed wording, witnessing and other requirements and protections for the party accepting the POA. The “Vine fix” law describes what a bank, financial institution or other party who is presented with a POA can and cannot do. The “Vine fix” provides immunity to anyone who accepts a POA in good faith, without actual knowledge that the POA is invalid, says The Mercury in the article “Planning Ahead: Will your bank honor your power of attorney?”

This law came about as a result of a case, Vine v. Commonwealth of PA State Employees’ Retirement Board. A Pennsylvania State employee, who was incapacitated following a car accident and a stroke, was given a POA to sign by the man who was then her husband. He changed her retirement options and later filed for divorce. At issue was the question of whether Mrs. Vine could invalidate his option and file for disability benefits. She did not have legal capacity, when she signed the document.

This was a case of hard facts making bad law. The State Supreme Court found that a third party (the Pennsylvania State Employees Retirement Board) could not rely on a void power of attorney, even where it did not know it was void when it was accepted. Banks saw the decision and were concerned that they could be sued for damages in similar cases.

The new law offers some immunity and additional protections for banks. However, as a result, there’s a little more push back with banks recognizing agents under power of attorney. The bank can request an agent’s certification or affidavit or opinion of counsel, as to whether the agent is acting within the scope of his legal authority. There is still a civil liability for refusing to accept a power of attorney that meets all the requirements.

Some estate planning attorneys have their clients obtain Power of Attorney forms directly from the institutions. This decreases the chances of any problems, when POAs are presented. It’s also a good idea to update the POA when you update your estate plan, which should be every three or four years. Regardless of your state of residence, a POA dated 10 or 15 years ago is likely to meet with some scrutiny. Talk with your estate planning attorney about the best way to address this in advance.

Reference: The Mercury (April 2, 2019) “Planning Ahead: Will your bank honor your power of attorney?”