What can a Power of Attorney Do—or Not Do?

Power of attorney is an important tool in estate planning. The recent article “Top Ten Facts About Powers of Attorney” from My Prime Time News, explains how a POA works, what it can and cannot do and how it helps families with loved ones who are incapacitated.

The agent’s authority to powers of attorney (POA) is only effective while the person is living. It ends upon the death of the principal. At that point in time, the executor named in the last will or an administrator named by a court are the only persons legally permitted to act on behalf of the decent.

An incapacitated person may not sign a POA.

Powers of Attorney can be broad or narrow. A person may be granted POA to manage a single transaction, for example, the sale of a home. They may also be named POA to handle all of a person’s financial and legal affairs. In some states, such as Colorado, general language in a POA may not be enough to authorize certain transactions. A POA should be created with an estate planning attorney as part of a strategic plan to manage the principal’s assets. A generic POA could create more problems than it solves.

You can have more than one agent to serve under your POA. If you prefer that two people serve as POA, the POA documents will need to state that requirement.

Banks and financial institutions have not always been compliant with POAs. In some cases, they insist that only their POA forms may be used. This has created problems for many families over the years, when POAs were not created in a timely fashion.

In 2010, Colorado law set penalties for third parties (banks, etc.) that refused to honor current POAs without reasonable cause. A similar law was passed in New York State in 2009. Rules and requirements are different from state to state, so speak with a local estate planning attorney to ensure that your POA is valid.

Your POA is effective immediately, once it is executed. A Springing POA becomes effective when the conditions specified in the POA are met. This often includes having a treating physician sign a document attesting to your being incapacitated. An estate planning attorney will be able to create a POA that best suits your situation.

If you anticipate needing a trust in the future, you may grant your agent the ability to create a trust in your POA. The language must align with your state’s laws to achieve this.

Your agent is charged with reporting any financial abuse and taking appropriate action to safeguard your best interests. If your agent fails to notify you of abuse or take actions to stop the abuser, they may be liable for reasonably foreseeable damages that could have been avoided.

The agent must never use your property to benefit himself, unless given authority to do so. This gets sticky, if you own property together. You may need additional documents to ensure that the proper authority is granted, if your POA and you are in business together, for example.

Every situation is different, and every state’s laws and requirements are different. It will be worthwhile to meet with an estate planning attorney to ensure that the documents created will be valid and to perform as desired.

Reference: My Prime-Time News (April 10, 2021) “Top Ten Facts About Powers of Attorney”

When Does the Fiduciary Duty Granted by a Power of Attorney Begin?

A recent case examined the issue of when the fiduciary duty begins for an agent who has been given Power of Attorney, as reported by the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin in the article “Presumed power of attorney fraud is main factor in joint-account fight.”

Soon after moving to Illinois from Florida to live with his eldest son, a man and that son opened multiple bank accounts, purchased certificates of deposit (CDs) from a bank where the son’s wife worked and transferred more than $60,000 from two of the man’s Florida bank accounts to Illinois banks. Soon after the man moved, his eldest son deposited more than $300,000 from the sale of his father’s Florida condominium into one of the father’s Illinois bank accounts.

The eldest son then withdrew money from the father’s accounts to pay for home improvement costs and other personal expenses. After the father died, the eldest son’s two brothers sued their older brother, accusing him of initiating numerous transfers of money that were not in their father’s or their best interests, and of exerting undue influence on their father, by convincing him to change his will after he moved in with the oldest brother.

The trial court ordered the older brother to repay more than $900,000 back to the estate, including almost $300,000 in prejudgment interest, and voided the revised estate planning documents that the older brother had his father sign. That included a revised will, trust and power of attorney that favored the older brother.

Once you are appointed as a power of attorney, you become a fiduciary—that’s how most state laws work. That means you must act first in the interest of the person who has appointed you. The law states that an agent owes a fiduciary duty to the principal. Period. Any transactions that favor the agent over the principal (or their estate) are deemed fraudulent, unless the agent is able to disprove the fraud with clear and convincing evidence that his or her actions were undertaken in good faith and did not betray the confidence and trust placed in the agent. If the agent can meet this burden, the challenged transaction may be upheld. But if it doesn’t, then the transaction is not valid.

Some of the facts the court look at when making this determination are: did the fiduciary make a full disclosure to the principal of key information, did the fiduciary pay the fair market value for the transfer and did the principal have competent and independent advice.

In this case, the trial judge found that the multiple transfers into the Illinois banks and the gift of $130,000 from the principal to the oldest brother occurred during the existence of the POA relationship. The oldest brother clearly benefitted from these transfers, which activated the presumption of fraud.

The trial court’s decision was appealed by the older brother, who along with his two younger brothers brought motions for summary judgment, that is, for the appeals court to disregard the decision of the trial court. However, the appeals court agreed with the trial judge that the older brother failed to prove that the transfers were in good faith.

The appeals court makes it clear: the power of attorney fiduciary relationship begins when the power of attorney agent signs the document and the agent has a legal responsibility to put the interests of the principal first.

Reference: Chicago Daily Law Bulletin (April 23, 2020) “Presumed power of attorney fraud is main factor in joint-account fight”