While much of your estate plan focuses on actions that take place after death, it’s equally important to have a plan for making critical financial or medical decisions if you’re unable to make them for yourself during your lifetime. This is why including a power of attorney in your estate plan is a must.
Defining a power of attorney
A power of attorney is defined as a legal document authorizing another person to act on your behalf. This person is referred to as the “attorney-in-fact” or “agent” — or sometimes by the same name as the document, “power of attorney.” Generally, there are separate powers of attorney for health care and property.
Be aware that a power of attorney is no longer valid if you become incapacitated. For many people, this is actually when the authorization is needed the most. Therefore, to thwart dire circumstances, you can adopt a “durable” power of attorney.
A durable power of attorney remains in effect if you become incapacitated and terminates only on your death. Thus, it’s generally preferable to a regular power of attorney. The document must include specific language required under state law to qualify as a durable power of attorney.
Naming your power of attorney
Despite the name, your power of attorney doesn’t necessarily have to involve an attorney, although that’s an option. Typically, in the case of a power of attorney for property, the designated agent is either a professional, such as an attorney, CPA or financial planner, or a family member or close friend. In any event, the person should be someone you trust implicitly and who is adept at financial matters. In the case of a health care power of attorney, a family member or close friend is the most common choice.
Regardless of whom you choose, it’s important to name a successor agent in case your top choice is unable to fulfill the duties or predeceases you.
Usually, the power of attorney will simply continue until death. However, you may revoke it — whether it’s durable or not — at any time and for any reason. If you’ve had a change of heart, notify the agent in writing about the revocation. In addition, notify other parties who may be affected.
Time is of the essence
To ensure that your health care and financial wishes are carried out, prepare and sign health care and financial powers of attorney as soon as possible. Don’t forget to let your family know how to gain access to the documents in case of emergency. Note that health care providers and financial institutions may be reluctant to honor a power of attorney that was executed years or decades earlier. Sign new documents periodically. Contact us with questions.
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