SEPTEMBER 16, 2013 VOLUME 20 NUMBER 35
Do you have a power of attorney? If so, do you know how it works? Is a “springing” power of attorney the best way for you to keep authority over your health care and financial decisions until a transition is needed? Many people have powers of attorney but do not understand how they work.
The power of attorney gives authority to an individual (the “agent” or “attorney in fact”) to make financial or medical decisions for another person (the “principal”) in the event of incapacity. Although sometimes health care powers of attorney are incorporated into general durable power of attorney, most people prefer to separate the two kinds of documents. A health care power of attorney gives an agent duties to make medical-related decisions and a durable power of attorney authorizes an agent to handle financial matters. While some states may give your health care agent the power to authority an autopsy, organ donation or burial arrangements, no American jurisdiction recognizes a power of attorney after the death of the principal. If you want to refresher on the basics, you might want to look at this white paper written by Slade V. Dukes.
One of the most important things to understand about your durable or health care power of attorney is whether it is a springing power or surviving power. A springing power of attorney is not immediately effective when you, the principal, sign it. Instead, the power can only become effective and “spring” into action when a specified event occurs like your incapacity or disability. A surviving power of attorney is effective the moment you sign it and survives even if you become disabled or incapacitated.
So, is it dangerous to have a surviving power of attorney and give your agent immediate authority to act on your behalf? Does it make more sense to create a springing power of attorney that only gives your agent authority to act when you really need the help? Now that you’re digging through your desk door in a panic, trying to decipher if your powers of attorney are springing or surviving — relax. The answer is that it depends.
Although Arizona recognizes springing powers of attorney, we see a general trend away from the use of springing powers. Legal standards of capacity are different then medical standards of capacity, so not all doctor’s letters are created equal. Even with a notarized doctor’s letter, it is not uncommon for a financial institution to object that a springing power of attorney has not, well, sprung. There is at least one state, Florida, that does not recognize springing powers of attorney in any form. A general consensus among practitioners seems to be that though springing powers can be used in some circumstances, they should not be the default.
Our office drafts both springing and surviving powers of attorney for our clients. And before we draft a power of attorney, it helps to learn about our clients’ health and family relationships. Making a thoughtful decision about selection of your agent is a critical part of preparing a power of attorney that will serve you well. In some cases, where there is a history of family conflict or a client has complex business or financial arrangements, there may be good reasons to create a springing power of attorney. In other cases, springing powers of attorney can be problematic and create hurdles that may make it difficult for an agent to act when the call for help comes.
So which is the right answer for you? Here’s a quick question for you to consider: do you completely and implicitly trust the person you are naming as agent? If your answer is “yes,” then it should not cause any problem to give them immediate authority to act. If the answer is “no,” then we need to talk about your choice of agent. Think about it: if you do not trust them enough to give them immediate authority, then perhaps they are not the right agent for you.
It’s easy to be glib, however, and a lot harder to actually live your life. Sometimes there are not good choices. Sometimes people may simply not be comfortable with an immediately effective power of attorney. When we prepare your estate plan, you should talk through your concerns and preferences — the point of signing a power of attorney is to give you peace of mind, not to make you more anxious.