Everyone has different preferences when it comes to their medical care and financial priorities.
Most people agree that if they are ever unable to advocate for their own wishes, they would like someone they trust to do it for them without having to go through a burdensome legal process to do so.
Yet that is the situation many older adults find themselves in when they do not have a power of attorney (POA) and a sudden medical crisis hits or dementia takes away their ability to make important decisions.
A power of attorney allows one person to grant authority to another person to act for them on their behalf. It does not rob the person doing the granting of their ability to act in their own interest but merely gives a second person the ability to do so as well.
There are two main types of powers of attorney and several situations in which each could be valuable.
Durable Medical Power of Attorney
A medical power of attorney gives one person (the agent) the power to make medical decisions in the best interest of another person (the principal). A durable medical power of attorney means that the document remains in effect even if the principal becomes incapacitated.
For an older loved one, a durable medical POA would allow them to have their care managed by a trusted adviser or family member even if they are unconscious, in the later stages of dementia, or otherwise unable to make their own health care decisions.
Putting that kind of power in the hands of someone else can be an anxiety-provoking choice. The stress level can be dialed down, however, if the document is paired with a living will.
A living will is a health care directive that spells out a person’s desired care. It is their instruction sheet for their health care agent, and that agent is legally obligated to act in accordance with the living will.
A living will typically contains directions on a range of matters, including whether to resuscitate, use feeding tubes, do kidney dialysis, use opioids for pain management, or whether to donate organs.
It is not a pleasant topic to think about, but neither is it a subject someone would want to leave to chance. Spelling everything out ahead of time and vesting someone with the power to make the decisions helps ensure that a person is treated in the way they desire.
Durable Financial Power of Attorney
A financial power of attorney performs the same function as a medical power of attorney, only it governs financial decisions rather than medical ones. The powers can be granted broadly or narrowly. Typically, they cover such things as making investment decisions and paying taxes, medical bills, and other household expenses.
A durable financial power of attorney means that the document remains in effect even if the principal becomes incapacitated.
Where a durable financial POA becomes important for older adults is when it is time to sell their home.
Older adults often sell their home — the equity of which can represent much of their life savings — to pay for assisted living care. However, if an older adult has dementia and does not have the mental capacity to enter into a sales contract, they could be in a legal quagmire.
With a financial power of attorney, the person’s agent would be able to act on their behalf without any questions or hassle. The house could be sold without delays, and all the money used for the person’s care.
Without a financial POA, however, a person would have to go through the legal process of becoming their loved one’s conservator. Then they would have to petition the court for the right to sell the house. The process is lengthy and can be expensive if legal representation is required. All the while, care is being delayed.
The Time Is Now
In either case — a medical or financial power of attorney — the time to get one is now, not later. Like flood insurance after a massive storm, if you wait until you need it, you are already too late.
For more practical advice about how to make sure your parents are prepared for retirement, download our free checklist of 15 Financial and Legal Questions You Should Ask Your Parent.