The Importance of Power of Attorney During Estate Planning

The Importance of Power of Attorney During Estate Planning

Your estate planning has many different parts that all need to move in the same direction in order to be successful. A vital part of this process is how to disseminate the various powers of attorney (POA). The POA will be one of the most important estate documents that you create, so you owe it to yourself to know as much as you can about it. Let’s take a look at just how important the POA is and how it will be used during the estate planning process.

What Is the Power of Attorney?

The power of attorney is the power to organize affairs on your behalf. There are different powers of attorney for different aspects of your life. For the purposes of this text, we will focus most on the financial POA, but there are also medical POAs and others that may apply during the estate process depending on circumstances.

In most cases, a power of attorney becomes effective immediately upon document execution. Contrary to popular belief, powers of attorney are not only for when a person becomes mentally incapable. In many cases, the POA document does not completely remove the power of the principal to manage their or her own affairs. The document simply grants the agent the power to act in place of the principal if needed. If the principal remains mentally competent, he can change the POA by replacing the agent or revoking the power totally.

However, the POA document truly becomes the most important document in the estate planning portfolio if a principal becomes somehow incapacitated or otherwise unable to handle their own affairs.

What Happens Without a Power of Attorney in Place

If a principal becomes incapable of handling their own affairs and has no power of attorney document in place, the family of the principal faces a potentially contentious situation. The POA document is the document on record of the wishes of the principal. Without it, there is no direct claim to the finances that the principal was in control of. Family members may begin to fight over the right to control things, especially if the estate is especially large or there are many valuable assets to consider.

In place of a designated person with the powers of attorney, the affected parties may agree to file for guardianship of the assets and property of the principal that has been disabled. Instead of simply following the wishes of the principal as mapped out in the POA, the family must now go through an often long and drawn-out court procedure.

The Process of Guardianship

During the court process of selecting a guardian, there will usually be a lawyer who is representing the Petitioner. The Petitioner is the individual who is looking to be named as the guardian. The Petitioner and their attorney will need to face, at the very least, an attorney who is in court to represent the rights of the person who has been disabled. No matter how close the family is, this process will likely generate thousands of dollars in legal fees in order to legally appoint the guardian.

Keep in mind also that a power of attorney document that is not clear may trigger this contentious process as well. You need to have the right attorney with the right experience in order to avoid these problems — just having a POA document that is not appropriate for your situation is not enough. A properly drafted power of attorney directly from the principal, while he is competent, is always preferable to a guardianship court proceeding.

Even when a legal guardianship is in place, the court maintains a Big Brother stance over the guardian to supervise the administration of the estate. Guardians are much less free to manage an estate than someone who is appointed through a power of attorney document. Guardians must always get the permission of the court to legally undertake many important assets that involve the estate, including paying the attorney’s fees for the procedure itself.

The court will also require that a guardian file an accounting of the estate on an annual basis. On top of this, a guardian must also file an inventory of the estate so that the court knows every activity that is taking place within the family estate. Having to report everything to the court undermines the very nature of a private estate, and it is much more expensive than a power of attorney transfer of responsibility. In most cases, the oversight of the court means that a family must employ more legal services in order to stay in compliance with regulations.

If you are in this sensitive situation, we can help you through it no matter who you may be up against. Do not hesitate to call us if you believe you have a legal claim to the estate of a family member who has been recently incapacitated.

Having an Effective POA

As mentioned before, the power of attorney that is set up by the principal must be well-drafted and relevant to the current situation. Otherwise, the court may trigger the guardianship process and all of the expenses and legal hassle that comes with it.

What makes a POA document effective during estate planning? Let’s take a look at the characteristics of an effective power of attorney.

  • Listing specific powers and limitations. A good power of attorney will list out the specific actions that an agent can take on behalf of a principal. Among these actions may be paying bills from the principal’s assets; managing those assets; selling all or part of the estate; and setting up various structures to avoid estate taxes. A principal may wish their estate to be used in a very specific way, and this is what the power of attorney should spell out in clear terms.
  • Language in the POA to persuade financial institutions to accept an agent. The financial institutions that did business with a principal are under no requirement to accept an agent, even from a properly worded POA. Many of these institutions now require language that is very specific in the POA to reaffirm that there is no funny business going on. Agents should also be prepared to reaffirm their responsibility, possibly on the financial institution’s proprietary forms.
  • Listing consolidated accounts. As a principal, if all of your accounts are kept spread out, your agent will have a tough time jumping through all of the hoops of the financial institutions want. Every bank is different. Consolidating accounts as you age not only helps to organize your family finances in the estate, but it also makes it easier to manage while you maintain control over them. You may want to list all of these accounts by name in the POA so that each financial institution can be more assured of your agent’s viability.
  • Decide on the type of POA. There are two major types of POAs that you can consider: the springing POA or the durable POA. The durable POA gives the power of attorney as soon as the principal signs it. The springing POA only takes effect in the event of a certain condition, such as the death, disability or incapacity of the principal. The timing of agent powers is a vital part of a POA. Without it, an agent may try to take over a principal’s estate too early and cause contention. Keep in mind that not all states allow springing POAs.
  • Define the conditions of incapacity. The last thing that you want is for someone else to determine when you are incapable of managing your own affairs. In your POA, you can name a medical professional to certify that you are incapacitated before your agent can take any action on your estate. This puts an added layer of protection in your POA, and it also gives your agent a good check against absolute power while you are still capable.
  • Establish oversight. Although your agent may have power of attorney, you can limit this right with certain oversights. The key is to make sure these oversights are written down specifically and fully clear to your attorney, to your agent, to the overseer and to anyone else who is involved in your estate.

Get Help with Powers of Attorney Today

The points above are just a few of the important aspects of the power of attorney document during estate planning. Every plan is different based on the individual needs of the estate. Make sure that you have the right attorney by your side when it is time to draft this essential document. Give us a call or an email with any questions that you may have about the process, or to get things started with your own POA. Time is of the essence, and there is no better time than now to get your affairs in order.

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