Why Is Power of Attorney So Important for Estate Planning?

One of the most overlooked and important documents in estate planning is the Power of Attorney. A recent article from Farm Progress, “Often overlooked estate planning issues: Powers of attorney,” explains how this document works and why it’s so important.

Most people will become incapacitated at some point in our lives, especially as we age. Some experts believe this number is as high as two-thirds of all Americans who, at some point in their lives, will become incapacitated. We are living longer and the chances of developing a condition to impair or rob us of the ability to make important health or financial decisions increases every year.

Powers of Attorney are just as important for young adults because the risk of disability or impairment is often actually higher than death for someone younger.

Designating a Power of Attorney gives you the control of choosing a trusted person to step in and act as your agent. A “Durable” POA remains in effect until it is revoked, or upon the death of the person who made it.

The person establishing the POA is the “principal.” The principal has the right to revoke the POA until they lack capacity to do so. The person or persons named to act for you through your POA is your “attorney-in-fact” or “agent.”

You may choose to have the POA in a “durable” form or a “springing” POA. The springing POA becomes effective only when you have been determined to be incapacitated. This sounds like a good idea. However, it comes with an issue: for the springing POA to become active, there must be proof of incapacity.

Depending upon your state, this may require a court to review documents attesting to your incapacity from a physician or health care provider. The durable POA is always in effect and your agent can step in for you immediately.

Everyone should also have a Health Care Power of Attorney, sometimes called a Health Care Proxy or a medical POA. The Health Care POA should be someone who can act quickly, so it’s optimal to name someone who lives nearby, in case there’s an emergency and decisions need to be made in a timely manner.

While it’s tempting to simply download a form from the internet, these two POAs are best prepared with an estate planning attorney, so they align with your state’s laws and your wishes. You may want someone to make all decisions for you, or you may want to limit their powers. Your estate planning attorney will be able to create a document to suit your specific needs.

It’s also important for your estate plan to address digital assets, since today so much of our financial and medical information is stored online. Your agent also needs to be able to access your digital life, to keep your life running smoothly and make informed decisions.

Reference: Farm Progress (Oct. 18, 2022) “Often overlooked estate planning issues: Powers of attorney.”

What Is Power of Attorney and Is It Important?

Most people realize the importance of the last will and testament. However, they remain unaware of the importance of a durable power of attorney. This document authorizes another person to act on your behalf while you are alive and expires upon death, as explained in a recent article titled “Power of attorney likely to be first vital estate document” from The News-Enterprise.

The power of attorney is used to give authorization regarding legal and financial matters. It can be tailored to be as broad or as narrow as one wishes. A healthcare proxy, also known as a healthcare power of attorney, is used to give authorization for medical decisions.

The general Power of Attorney is used when a person is unable to act for themselves due to illness or injury. It is also needed when a person is unable to act on their own behalf because of mental incapacity. The POA is also used for when someone prefers to have another person manage their financial affairs.

Spouses use POAs to handle day-to-day financial tasks, from dealing with insurance companies to managing bank accounts, loans, or other financial matters. If one spouse cannot attend a real estate closing, for instance, the other will need a POA so they may represent their spouse.

Some people think just adding another person to an account will work the same way as a POA. However, this is not accurate. A co-owner might be able to pay bills. However, their ability to do anything else will be limited. They won’t be able to amend the account, unless both parties are present, for instance.

POAs are state-specific documents, so any Power of Attorney, whether for healthcare or finances, should be created by an estate planning attorney in the state where you live and any state where you own property.

Some powers, including the ability to make gifts of the principal’s property or to change beneficiaries for retirement accounts or life insurance policies, may sound as if they are far beyond what’s needed when these documents are first drafted. However, unexpected things happen at all stages of life, and situations arise where these powers are needed. Seemingly simple tasks become far more complicated, if the POA doesn’t permit these types of additional powers.

If there is concern about broad powers, the document can include limited language. For instance, a POA can include a limit on gifting the principal’s property pursuant to any previously documented wishes. This will allow gifting to be completed, but only to the terms already indicated. However, be careful about broad limiting language, like limiting gifts to annual gift exclusions. Prohibiting an agent from acting in ways to protect the principal’s property and best interest could be counterproductive.

Drafted by an experienced estate planning attorney to suit the specific needs of the individual, a power of attorney can make it possible for a trusted individual to conduct your wishes and protect your best interests. Make sure that you have one and update it whenever you update your overall estate plan.

Reference: The News Enterprise (June 25, 2022) “Power of attorney likely to be first vital estate document”

How Do You Get a Power of Attorney?

If you are involved as a care provider for someone who is not able to manage their own affairs, you need to have the legal authority to act in the person’s best interest. To do that, you’ll need to have Power of Attorney (POA) for them, explains the article “How to get power of attorney for a loved one” from Tyron Daily Bulletin.

If the person you are trying to help suffers from dementia, a terminal illness or a condition which makes it difficult for them to communicate or make reasoned decisions, you may not be able to obtain a POA. As a result, may need to go to court for a guardianship or conservatorship instead.

POAs vary by state, so talk with an estate planning attorney to find out what your state allows. In most cases, the POA gives you the power to act on someone else’s behalf for a specific period of time regarding financial management. In most states, you will need a separate healthcare POA to make healthcare decisions or to speak with healthcare providers.

The agent (also known as an attorney in fact) under a POA is required to act in the best interest of the principal. Decisions regarding investments, property, bank accounts, debts and other financial matters must always place the principal first. It is crucial to maintain complete and accurate records of all transactions, and the agent’s finances and personal affairs must be kept separate from the principals.

If the principal is alive and of sound mind, they can overrule the agent’s decision, change or even terminate the POA agreement. They can also name someone else to serve as their agent with another POA. All POA powers terminate upon the death of the principal. Unless the same person has been named as agent under POA and as the executor of the estate or is appointed as executor (or administrator) by the court, that person’s responsibility ends upon the death of the principal.

There are a number of things that an agent under a POA cannot do:

  • Be paid for personal services provided to the principal
  • Vote in place of the principal
  • Take over the principal’s guardianship of another person
  • Change the principal’s will.

Even if you or the person who is naming you as the agent under their POA is in good health now, it is wise to plan for the future. We do not know when our capacity to manage finances or make healthcare decisions will be lost. Speak with an estate planning attorney about the POA to best serve your circumstances before it is needed.

Reference: Tyron Daily Bulletin (March 7, 2022) “How to get power of attorney for a loved one”

What Legal Terms in Estate Planning do Non-Lawyers Need to Know?

Having a working knowledge of the legal terms used in estate planning is the first step in working successfully with an estate planning attorney, says a recent article, “Learn lingo of estate planning to help ensure best outcome” from The News-Enterprise. Two of those key words:

Principal—the individual on whose behalf documents are prepared, and

Fiduciary—the person who signs some of these documents and who is responsible for making decisions in the best interest of the principal and the estate.

In estate planning and in business, the fiduciary is the person or business who must act responsibly and in good faith towards the person and their property. You’ll see this term in almost every estate planning or financial document.

Within a last will and testament, there are more: beneficiary, conservator, executor, grantor, guardian, testator, and trustee are some of the more commonly used terms for the roles people take.

The testator is the principal, the person who signs the will and on whose behalf the will was drafted.

Beneficiaries are individuals who receive property from the estate after death. Contingent beneficiaries are “back-up” beneficiaries, in case the beneficiaries are unable to receive the inheritance. In most wills, the beneficiaries are listed “or to descendants, per stirpes.” This means if the beneficiary dies before the testator, the beneficiary’s children receive the original beneficiary’s share.

In most cases, specific distributions are made first, where a specific asset or amount of money goes to a specific person. This includes charitable donations. After all specific distributions are made, the rest of the estate, referred to as the “residuary estate,” is distributed. This includes everything else in the probate estate.

The administrator or executor is the fiduciary charged with gathering assets, paying bills and making the distribution to beneficiaries. The executor is the term used when there is a will. If there is no will, the person in the role is referred to as the administrator and may be appointed by the court.

If a beneficiary is unable to take the inheritance because they are a minor or incapacitated, the court will appoint a conservator to act as fiduciary on behalf of the beneficiary.

A guardian is the person who takes care of the beneficiary, or minor children, and is named in the will. If there is no guardian named in the will, or if there is no will, a court will appoint a person to be the guardian. Judges do not always select family members to serve as guardians, so there should always be a secondary guardian, in case the first cannot serve. If the first guardian does not wish to serve or is unable to, naming a secondary guardian is better than a child being sent to foster care.

Finally, the trustee is the person in charge of a trust. The person who creates the trust is the grantor or settlor. It’s important to note the executor has no control or input over the trust. Only the trustee or successor trustee may make distributions and they are the trust’s fiduciary.

Getting comfortable with the terms of estate planning will make the process easier and help you understand the different roles and responsibilities involved.

Reference: The News-Enterprise (Jan. 18, 2022) “Learn lingo of estate planning to help ensure best outcome”

Do You Need Power of Attorney If You Have a Joint Account?

A person with Power of Attorney for their parents can’t actually “add” the POA to their bank accounts. However, they may change bank accounts to be jointly owned. There are some pros and cons of doing this, as discussed in the article “POAs vs. joint ownership” from NWI.com.

The POA permits the agent to access their parent’s bank accounts, make deposits and write checks.  However, it doesn’t create any ownership interest in the bank accounts. It allows access and signing authority.

If the person’s parent wants to add them to the account, they become a joint owner of the account. When this happens, the person has the same authority as the parent, accessing the account and making deposits and withdrawals.

However, there are downsides. Once the person is added to the account as a joint owner, their relationship changes. As a POA, they are a fiduciary, which means they have a legally enforceable responsibility to put their parent’s benefits above their own.

As an owner, they can treat the accounts as if they were their own and there’s no requirement to be held to a higher standard of financial care.

Because the POA does not create an ownership interest in the account, when the owner dies, the account passes to the surviving joint owners, Payable on Death (POD) beneficiaries or beneficiaries under the parent’s estate plan.

If the account is owned jointly, when one of the joint owners dies, the other person becomes the sole owner.

Another issue to consider is that becoming a joint owner means the account could be vulnerable to creditors for all owners. If the adult child has any debt issues, the parent’s account could be attached by creditors, before or after their passing.

Most estate planning attorneys recommend the use of a POA rather than adding an owner to a joint account. If the intent of the owners is to give the child the proceeds of the bank account, they can name the child a POD on the account for when they pass and use a POA, so the child can access the account while they are living.

One last point: while the parent is still living, the child should contact the bank and provide them with a copy of the POA. This, allows the bank to enter the POA into the system and add the child as a signatory on the account. If there are any issues, they are best resolved before while the parent is still living.

Reference: NWI.com (Aug. 15, 2021) “POAs vs. joint ownership”

What are Responsibilities of Trustees and Executors?

Being a fiduciary requires putting the interest of the beneficiary over your own interests, no matter what. The person in charge of managing a trust, the trustee, has a fiduciary duty to the beneficiary, which is described by the terms of the trust. This is explained in a recent article titled “Estate Planning: Executors, executrix and personal representatives” from nwitimes.com.

Understanding the responsibilities of the trust requires a review of the trust documents, which can be long and complicated. An estate planning attorney will be able to review documents and explain the directions if the trust is a particularly complex one.

If the trust is a basic revocable living trust used to avoid having assets in the estate go through probate, duties are likely to be similar to those of a personal representative, also known as the executor. This is the person in charge of carrying out the directions in a last will.

A simple explanation of executor responsibilities is gathering the assets, filing tax returns, and paying creditors. The executor files for an EIN number, which functions like a Social Security number for the estate. The executor opens an estate bank account to hold assets that are not transferred directly to named beneficiaries. And the executor files the last tax returns for the decedent for the last year in which he or she was living, and an estate tax return. There’s more to it, but those are the basic tasks.

A person tasked with administering a trust for the benefit of another person must give great attention to detail. The instructions and terms of the trust must be followed to the letter, with no room for interpretation. Thinking you know what someone else wanted, despite what was written in the trust, is asking for trouble.

If there are investment duties involved, which is common when a trust contains significant assets managed in an investment portfolio, it will be best to work with a professional advisor. Investment duties may be subject to the Prudent Investor Act, or they may include the name of a specific advisor who was managing the accounts before the person died.

If there is room for any discretion whatsoever in the trust, be careful to document every decision. If the trust says you can distribute principal based on the needs of the beneficiary, document why you did or did not make the distribution. Don’t just hand over funds because the beneficiary asked for them. Make decisions based on sound reasoning and document your reasons.

Being asked to serve as a trustee reflects trust. It is also a serious responsibility, and one to be performed with great care.

Reference: nwitimes.com (July 18, 2021) “Estate Planning: Executors, executrix and personal representatives”

Powers of Attorney and Advance Directives
Book, pen and Power of Attorney document on a desktop

Powers of Attorney and Advance Directives

A medical crisis only gets worse, when you learn you don’t have legal authority to make medical decisions for a loved one, or find out after a loved one is incapacitated that you can’t gain access to assets in their trust. You need to have certain estate planning legal documents already in place, according to the article “Tips you should know for Powers of Attorney and Advance Directives” from seacoastonline.com.

Power of Attorney. The power of attorney (POA) allows one person, the “principal” to appoint another person as their “agent” (also known as an “attorney in fact”). The agent has the authority to act on behalf of the principal, depending on the powers described in the document. Each state has its own laws about who can be an agent, if more than one person can be appointed as agent and if there are any limits to what power can be given to an agent. Your estate planning attorney will be able to create a POA to suit your situation.

A POA can be created to give extremely broad powers to an agent. This is sometimes called a “general” POA, where agents can do everything that you would do, from accessing and managing bank accounts, applying for Social Security, to filing tax returns. A POA can also be limited in scope, known as “limited” POA. You could permit an agent to only sign a tax return or conduct a specific transaction.

In most estate planning scenarios, the POA is “durable,” meaning the named agent can continue to have authority to act, even if the principal is incapacitated after the documents have been executed. This makes sense: a durable POA generally avoids having to go to court and have a guardian appointed. The person you have selected will be the POA, not a court-appointed person.

Advance Directive. The advance directive allows a person to appoint another person to make medical decisions on their behalf if incapacitated. In some states, this is called a durable power of attorney for health care, and in others it is referred to as a health care proxy.

In most cases, the advance directive becomes effective when one or more treating physicians determine the person no longer has capacity to make or communicate health care decisions. Having this document in place avoids having to go to court to have a guardian appointed. If time is of the essence, any delay in decision-making could lead to a poor outcome. If there is no advance directive and physicians have decided you are unable to make these decisions, they go by a hierarchy of relatives to make the decisions for you. If you have an estranged adult child, for instance, but they are your next-of-kin, they could be the one making decisions for you.

If you have children who recently became legal adults (usually age 18), these documents will protect them as well, since just being their parent does not provide you with the right to make these decisions.

Reference: Seacoastonline.com (June 27, 2021) “Tips you should know for Powers of Attorney and Advance Directives”

What can a Power of Attorney Do—or Not Do?

Power of attorney is an important tool in estate planning. The recent article “Top Ten Facts About Powers of Attorney” from My Prime Time News, explains how a POA works, what it can and cannot do and how it helps families with loved ones who are incapacitated.

The agent’s authority to powers of attorney (POA) is only effective while the person is living. It ends upon the death of the principal. At that point in time, the executor named in the last will or an administrator named by a court are the only persons legally permitted to act on behalf of the decent.

An incapacitated person may not sign a POA.

Powers of Attorney can be broad or narrow. A person may be granted POA to manage a single transaction, for example, the sale of a home. They may also be named POA to handle all of a person’s financial and legal affairs. In some states, such as Colorado, general language in a POA may not be enough to authorize certain transactions. A POA should be created with an estate planning attorney as part of a strategic plan to manage the principal’s assets. A generic POA could create more problems than it solves.

You can have more than one agent to serve under your POA. If you prefer that two people serve as POA, the POA documents will need to state that requirement.

Banks and financial institutions have not always been compliant with POAs. In some cases, they insist that only their POA forms may be used. This has created problems for many families over the years, when POAs were not created in a timely fashion.

In 2010, Colorado law set penalties for third parties (banks, etc.) that refused to honor current POAs without reasonable cause. A similar law was passed in New York State in 2009. Rules and requirements are different from state to state, so speak with a local estate planning attorney to ensure that your POA is valid.

Your POA is effective immediately, once it is executed. A Springing POA becomes effective when the conditions specified in the POA are met. This often includes having a treating physician sign a document attesting to your being incapacitated. An estate planning attorney will be able to create a POA that best suits your situation.

If you anticipate needing a trust in the future, you may grant your agent the ability to create a trust in your POA. The language must align with your state’s laws to achieve this.

Your agent is charged with reporting any financial abuse and taking appropriate action to safeguard your best interests. If your agent fails to notify you of abuse or take actions to stop the abuser, they may be liable for reasonably foreseeable damages that could have been avoided.

The agent must never use your property to benefit himself, unless given authority to do so. This gets sticky, if you own property together. You may need additional documents to ensure that the proper authority is granted, if your POA and you are in business together, for example.

Every situation is different, and every state’s laws and requirements are different. It will be worthwhile to meet with an estate planning attorney to ensure that the documents created will be valid and to perform as desired.

Reference: My Prime-Time News (April 10, 2021) “Top Ten Facts About Powers of Attorney”