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What’s Durable Power of Attorney?

Published: June 2016

You might be thinking, what is durable power of attorney and why should I be considering it? No matter your age or your life situation, it doesn’t hurt to be prepared for the unexpected. Although a sudden or critical health change isn’t something anyone wants to think about, unfortunately, life can sometimes throw you a curve ball whether you’re ready or not. Having a conversation with your family before any health changes take place can help your family members make confident decisions about who may handle your affairs, says the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Planning ahead can also help your family and close friends clarify and understand your wishes and goals.

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Advance directives are legal documents that specify your health care wishes and decisions — and who can make those decisions should you no longer be able to do so yourself, according to the National Caregivers Library (NCL). A specific type of advance directive, know as a durable power of attorney, legally enables a selected loved one, friend or trusted professional to make essential — often difficult — decisions on your behalf if you’re incapacitated, according to the NCL.

According to the National Institute on Aging, a durable power of attorney document can include the following types of decisions:

  • Health care decisions, such as which medical treatments should be used or withheld. This can include treatments for acute or chronic conditions, life support or resuscitation, and end-of-life care.
  • Money-management decisions, such as managing investments and retirement accounts
  • Managing and making gifts and donations
  • Acting on your behalf in a court of law or official appearances
  • Paying your mortgage, car payment or other financial obligations
  • Managing Social Security, Medicare, pensions or any other benefits to which you’re entitled
  • Serving on your behalf for any other items you specify also says if you want to appoint someone to act on your behalf you’re known as the “principal.” You then appoint an “agent” or “attorney-in-fact” to act on your behalf. You should consider this “attorney-in-fact” to be a highly trusted individual — such as a spouse, adult child, lawyer, physician or close friend — who is both knowledgeable about your wishes and comfortable executing them.

Once a durable power of attorney has been thoroughly discussed with your family and a trusted “attorney-in-fact” has been chosen, the next step involves creating the agreement and defining the terms. Many state attorney generals’ websites, banks and brokerages offer sample power of attorney forms that can serve as a framework, says

The NCL also recommends signing the document in front of multiple witnesses, including a doctor or a lawyer who can serve to help confirm that you were of sound mind at the time of the document’s creation, and thus help ensure its validity. Having an attorney review the document to help ensure it’s completed correctly and thoroughly covers your wishes is yet another safeguard recommended by the NCL. Finally, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) suggests the document should be stored in a fireproof and waterproof box or safe that is easily accessible by both you and the “attorney-in-fact.” Storing an additional copy with a physician or attorney is also helpful.

It’s good to remember that health changes can affect us all — regardless of age. Even younger family members can benefit by planning for unexpected or critical health changes. It’s never too early to plan for your future needs.

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