What is Power of Attorney?

Written by Julia on October 20, 2015

In simple terms, a Power of Attorney is a legal document that gives one person the legal power to make financial or medical decisions for another. This often means allowing adult children to make important decisions for aging parents, who may no longer be capable of handling their own decisions. The power of attorney can be an invaluable tool in family eldercare situations.

Nature of Powers of Attorney

Powers of attorney can be medical or financial.

A financial power of attorney covers all aspects of finances, from paying bills and handling bank accounts to managing or selling real estate.

A medical power of attorney covers healthcare decisions.

A general power of attorney covers both.

Length of Powers of Attorney

Powers of attorney can be short- or long-term, and can even be written so that they only go into effect under certain circumstances. While they are most often used when someone is chronically incapacitated or terminally ill, they’re important legal documents. They should be a routine part of estate planning.

What types of Powers of Attorney are there?

Powers of attorney come in three varieties:

Durable power of attorney

This goes into effect the moment it is signed and stays in effect for the rest of the grantor’s (the person who is giving the power of attorney to someone else) life unless he or she revokes it. It remains in effect even if the grantor becomes incapacitated and unable to make his or her wishes known.

Non-durable power of attorney

This also goes into effect immediately after it is signed. However, it becomes void if the grantor becomes incapacitated.

Springing power of attorney

This goes into effect upon a specific date, or when specific predetermined conditions are met. For instance, you may specify that a springing power of attorney go into effect if you are incapacitated for more than one month, or if you are declared incompetent, or in whatever situation you feel is appropriate.

It gives you more control than the other types. It remains in effect indefinitely unless otherwise specified in the conditions.

When should you consider a power of attorney?

Just like making a will or setting up a trust, the best time for drawing up a power of attorney is before it’s needed. Choosing the best person on whom to bestow power of attorney is a decision that should not be taken lightly. Ideally the conversation should happen long before there’s any need to hand over decision-making power.

A power of attorney document doesn’t go into effect until it is signed, witnessed, and notarized. Therefore, it can be be drawn up months or even years in advance, to only be finalized when and if the need ever arises.

How to Converse About Power of Attorney

A good time to talk about the issue is in conjunction with other eldercare or estate planning issues. Also, bring topic up when talking about health issues.

How you approach the issue depends on your particular circumstances. However, a good way to frame the issue is in terms of love and care. “I love you, Mom/Dad. I’d like to know that if anything ever happens, and you can’t tell me what you want, that we have a plan.”

Get expert advice

A power of attorney is an extremely powerful document, and having it drawn up by an elder law attorney or through an online legal site is highly recommended. Like with most emotional decisions, it’s easy to overlook important issues. An impartial expert can assure that there are no legal loopholes that leave it open to challenge.