An important part of lifetime planning is the power of attorney. A power of attorney gives one or more persons the power to act on your behalf as your agent. This power may be limited to a particular activity, such as closing the sale of your home, or be general in its application. The power may give temporary or permanent authority to act on your behalf. The power may take effect immediately, or only upon the occurrence of a future event, usually a determination that you are unable to act for yourself due to mental or physical disability. The latter is called a “springing” power of attorney.
The person named in a power of attorney to act on your behalf is commonly referred to as your “agent” or “attorney-in-fact.” With a valid power of attorney, your agent can take any action permitted in the document. Often your agent must present the actual document to invoke the power.
Why would anyone give such sweeping authority to another person? One answer is convenience. If you are buying or selling assets and do not wish to appear in person to close the transaction, you may take advantage of a power of attorney. Another important reason to use power of attorney is to prepare for situations when you may not be able to act on your own behalf due to absence or incapacity. Such a disability may be temporary, for example due to travel, accident, or illness, or it may be permanent as in dementia and Alzheimer’s.
If you do not have a power of attorney and become unable to manage your personal or business affairs, it may be necessary for a court to appoint one or more people to act for you. If a court proceeding is needed, you may not have the ability to choose the person who will act for you. Few people want to be subject to a public proceeding in this manner so being proactive to create the appropriate document to avoid this is important. A power of attorney allows you to choose who will act for you and defines his or her authority and its limits, if any.
You may wish to choose a family member to act on your behalf. Many people name their spouses or one or more children. In naming more than one person to act as agent at the same time, be alert to the possibility that all may not be available to act when needed, or they may not agree. The designation of co-agents should indicate whether you wish to have the majority act in the absence of full availability and agreement. Regardless of whether you name co-agents, you should always name one or more successor agents to address the possibility that the person you name as agent may be unavailable or unable to act when the time comes.
The best choice is someone you trust. Integrity, not financial acumen, is often the most important trait of a potential agent.