What is a Durable Power of Attorney?
As you or your loved one ages, it’s important to discuss and plan for the future, even though thinking about a time when one might not be make competent decisions can be unpleasant. In the same way that it’s imperative to research and share wishes regarding long-term health care and treatment in various scenarios before an emergency occurs, having a plan decided upon and documented can help ensure that you or your loved one’s wishes are carried out, even if you cannot make decisions at that time.
In the case of a durable power of attorney (POA), it is even more important that a person makes and documents his or her decisions while still able, as this type of advanced directive cannot be changed once a person is deemed incapacitated. Similar to a trust, a durable power of attorney allows a person (or a “principal”) to appoint an “agent” to handle specific health and financial responsibilities. This agent is typically a trusted family member or a friend, and will be responsible for making certain decisions for a person once he or she cannot do so for him or herself.
There are two types of POAs:
- POA for finances: Grants the agent the authority to make legal/financial decisions on behalf of the person.
- POA for healthcare: Grants the agent the authority to make health care decisions on behalf of the person.
When a POA is written, a person can decide to have the transfer of responsibility happen immediately, or take place at a later date specified by certain circumstances. While some seniors may feel hesitant to name an agent because they feel they are giving up independence or control of their own life, it’s important to remind them that a POA does not have to take effect until certain criteria take place (for example, he or she can no longer make decisions themselves).
If a POA is not established, loved ones will not be able to make important decisions regarding the senior’s care and financial state (including paying bills) without going to court to be named a legal guardian. This could cause detrimental delays in getting services or paying important bills in the case of an emergency that renders the senior incapacitated.
Choosing the correct agent and communicating the senior’s wishes is critical in establishing a POA. However, these documents can be changed or revoked at any time as long as the senior is still deemed competent. It’s important that the chosen agent understands the scope or responsibility, as an established POA does stay in effect until the principal’s death.
If your loved one is aging and does not have a POA established, it can be challenging to bring up the topic. You can use situations in every day life – including news in the paper or on tv, the sickness of a friend or family member, or even a doctor’s visit – to bridge the topic. Remember to conduct the conversation with sensitivity and focus on the fact that your goal is to preserve the wishes of the senior, even when he or she cannot make decisions for themselves.
As with all future planning, it’s important to have these conversations before circumstances necessitate them, and to formally document all decisions correctly (it’s helpful to consult a lawyer with expertise in estate planning). Planning ahead can reduce the amount of stress for your loved one and family members in the years to come.