Do You Need a Power of Attorney?

Did you know estate planning attorneys recommend anyone over age 18 have a power of attorney? Without one, even a long-married spouse may not be able to make financial or medical decisions if their spouse became incapacitated, according to a recent article “How to Set Up a Power of Attorney” from U.S. News & World Report. Naming someone and having the documents created to make them a Power of Attorney (POA) is part of creating an estate plan.

If someone becomes incapacitated, someone else—a family member or the state—has to be able to make decisions on their behalf. People hesitate sometimes, as they’re not sure about giving someone the power to make decisions. However, lacking one leads to problems in emergent situations.

While the 18-year-olds are usually the most upset when they learn their parents wish to be named as their POA, it is because they don’t realize how mom and dad have no legal authority over them once they become legal adults.

State laws vary for powers of attorney, so it is important to work with a local estate planning attorney who can create a POA specific to your needs and following the laws of your state.

How to get started with a Power of Attorney

The first, and possibly hardest, part of a POA is determining who should be named. The individual needs to be responsible, trustworthy and calm in emergency situations. Just because someone is related to you doesn’t necessarily qualify them to serve in this role. You should also name a secondary POA, in case the first is unable or unwilling to act on your behalf.

Next, have your estate planning attorney draft the document, which typically works in connection with other estate planning documents including your will, health care proxy and HIPAA release forms. You should have a Power of Attorney for finances and a Health Care Power of Attorney for medical care.

Be careful about what happens to copies of the documents and where they are stored. Some estate planning attorneys create documents to be stored in a fire and water-proof box at home, in the safety deposit box at a bank, or in the attorney’s fireproof safe. Others say you should never put important documents in a safety deposit box in a bank, because if the documents are needed and the bank is closed, the person won’t be able to step up and act.

The POA needs to be kept up to date, just like any part of your estate plan. Some financial institutions will refuse to honor a POA if they consider it out of date. Every three to five years, this document should be updated. It should also be updated if the person named POA becomes incapacitated, dies, or moves to another state.

Should You Have a Durable Power of Attorney?

Powers of attorney typically end when a person becomes incapacitated, which is exactly when you want to have a POA. A Durable Power of Attorney can make decisions on your behalf, even if you become incapacitated.

What is a Springing Power of Attorney?

Power of attorney for finances or healthcare can be effective immediately when the documents are signed or take effect under predetermined circumstances, such as when the principal becomes incapacitated. This is known as a springing power of attorney because it “springs” into effect at a specific time. It seems like a good idea, but a word of caution: the springing power of attorney requires a doctor’s evaluation of incapacity. This often takes time, which can be the one thing you don’t have in an urgent situation.

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (July 21, 2022) “How to Set Up a Power of Attorney”

Choose Wisely and Protect Yourself When Naming a Power of Attorney

Deciding who to name as your power of attorney, or “agent” is not an easy decision. However, it is a necessary appointment, says this article “Ways to protect yourself when appointing a power of attorney” from The Mercury. Disaster and disability strike without advance notice, so it’s important to make this decision while you are well and can think it through.

If you don’t have a power of attorney in place and the unexpected occurs, the only way for your family to obtain legal authority to act on your behalf is through a guardianship procedure. Even when not contested, guardianship is expensive, time consuming and can limit personal freedom. Not every court will award guardianship to a family member, so the end result could be a stranger taking control of your decisions and property.

Having a power of attorney is a far better alternative, but there are seniors who are concerned about the power of a POA and how it might be abused. Here are some tips to keep you in control of your life even with a POA:

Choose wisely when you are well. Choose your agent when you are of sound mind and body. A common “test” is the checkbook test: could you, right now, hand this person your checkbook without a second thought? Do you believe this person would act responsibly, in your own best interest, follow through in paying bills, ask for help in areas they may not understand, record transactions and be scrupulously honest? If you hesitate to give them your checkbook today, you aren’t likely to trust them to run your life in the future.

Many people choose an agent based on whether the person is the oldest child or if there would be hurt feelings if the person was named. These are not good reasons. A person who has problems managing money, for whatever reason, is not a good candidate. Their own stress might make access to your funds too great to resist.

Name a secondary Power of Attorney. There should always be a back-up person named, if the person you name is not able to serve. The same goes for trustees and beneficiaries. Discuss these alternatives with your estate planning attorney to ensure the attorney knows the identities of the primary and secondary choices.

Have a Power of Attorney customized to your personal needs. Not all Powers of Attorney are the same, and one that is great for a friend may be a disaster for you. Limited powers, unlimited powers, powers to gift or powers only for a specific task or period of time are all options when creating a Power of Attorney. You may have a business to run or a partnership to dissolve. Gifting might be permitted to limit estate taxes, if that is your wish. Limited gifting generally means $15,000 a year, although your estate planning attorney can provide guidance on how to best structure gifting for you. If you own life insurance policies, you may want to permit your agent to cash in insurance policies but not allow the agent to change the named beneficiaries.

Two agents or one agent? Not all banks or investment companies will accept two agents. If they do, will the two people you select be able to work together? If not, naming two could create a financial and legal firestorm.

Financial Power of Attorney and Health Care Power of Attorney can be two separate roles. One person might be terrific with managing money, while another could be better at understanding and managing healthcare providers. Naming different people for each task will allow both to participate in caring for you and draw on their unique skillsets.

Fire when necessary. You always have the right to remove someone from their role as your agent. Your attorney will know how to do this properly to protect you and other agents.

Reference: The Mercury (Aug. 3, 2021) “Ways to protect yourself when appointing a power of attorney”

What Happens If You Don’t Name Beneficiaries?

It’s always good to check into your retirement accounts and consider if you are saving enough and if your investments are properly balanced. However, what’s just as important is whether you’ve reviewed named beneficiaries for these and other accounts. The recommendation comes from the article titled “Review your IRA, 401(k) beneficiaries” from Idaho State Business Journal, and it’s sound advice.

In more cases than you might think, people overlook this detail, and their loved ones are left with the consequences. After all, you opened those accounts long ago, and who even remembers? Does it really matter?

In a word, yes. What if your family circumstances have changed since you named a beneficiary? If divorce and remarriage occurred, do you want your former spouse to receive your IRA, 401(k) and life insurance proceeds?

It’s important to understand that beneficiary designations supersede anything in your last will and testament. Therefore, while you’ve been dutifully updating your estate plans whenever life changes occur and neglecting beneficiary designations, your ex or someone else who is no longer in your life could receive a surprise windfall.

Here’s another detail often overlooked: retirement plans, and insurance policies may need more than one beneficiary. Any time there is an opportunity to name a contingent beneficiary, take advantage of it. If the primary beneficiary dies or refuses the inheritance and there is no contingent or secondary beneficiary, the proceeds could end up back into your estate. Depending on the laws of your state, they might end up being taxable, in addition to not going to your intended heir.

This is an easy thing to fix, but it takes diligence and in some cases, a fair amount of time.

Start by gathering information on all your accounts, including retirement, checking and savings accounts, 401(k)s, pension plans, insurance policies and any accounts containing assets you want to pass to loved ones. If you see anything incorrect or outdated, immediately contact the financial institution, your company’s benefits manager or your insurance representative to request a change-of-beneficiary form.

Once you receive the form, immediately address making the changes. Request a printed confirmation from the financial organization to confirm the change has been made. Don’t accept a verbal acknowledgement by a call center employee—this is too important to leave to chance.

To be on the safe side, it would be wise to have your estate planning attorney work with you on documenting your beneficiary designations as part of your estate plan. You may also pick up some smart pointers on other suggestions for dealing with beneficiaries.

For example, children are not permitted to control assets until they reach the age of majority. But when most children reach age 18 or 21, they are not ready to manage substantial sums of money. Your will names a guardian for minor children, but it is also wise to create a trust for the benefit of a minor that controls when distributions are made when they are older.

Most people want to leave something behind for those they love. Make sure to do it in the right way—including paying attention to beneficiary designations.

Reference: Idaho State Business Journal (July 27, 2021) “Review your IRA, 401(k) beneficiaries”