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A Guide to Power of Attorney for Your Parents

The right forms will let the right people make financial decisions for your mom and dad, if necessary

By Harper Willis | July 8, 2014

There may come a time when one or both of your parents aren’t able to make crucial financial decisions, from signing their tax returns to selling their mutual funds.
 
To prepare for that possibility, it’s a good idea for to help them draw up power of attorney agreements, granting you, another family member or some other third party the legal right to make such decisions on their behalf. (A power of attorney for health care, by contrast, authorizes someone to make medical decisions.)

But powers of attorney can be tricky.
 
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You and your parents must be careful to select the right people for this responsibility and to limit their powers appropriately.
 
For example, your parents might grant one individual the power to make all their financial decisions through a general power of attorney, or just certain decisions, through a specific power of attorney.
 
With a specific power of attorney, they may give their financial adviser the authority to handle their investment accounts and give you control over their day-to-day finances, such as ensuring that their bills get paid using the money in their accounts.
 
If your parents are reluctant to grant power of attorney agreements, explain to them what could happen if they don’t. For instance, your mom could be unable to make IRA withdrawals from your dad’s retirement account, or worse.

“Just recently, a client’s husband fell ill from a brain tumor. Without a power of attorney agreement, she would not have been able to take out the loans in his behalf to pay expenses while he was sick,” says Sandi Bragar, director of planning for San Francisco-based financial advisory firm Aspiriant.
 
5 Power of Attorney Scenarios

Here are five common scenarios that can help you and your parents make the right power of attorney decisions:

1. Your parents are married and competent to make financial decisions. “In this case, it makes sense for them to grant each other durable general power of attorney,” says Bragar.
 
Durable general power of attorney allows spouses to write checks and make financial decisions on behalf of each other. If one becomes incapacitated, the other can continue to manage the household’s finances.
 
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But each of your parents should list a back-up person on their power of attorney forms, in case both become incapacitated.

2. Your parent is single or married to someone who isn’t mentally competent to exercise power of attorney. In either case, there should be at least one other person with power of attorney.
 
It may make sense to give that person what’s known as “springing power of attorney,” which means the agreement will only take effect if a physician deems your parent to be incapacitated or incompetent.
 
“Most of my clients don’t like the idea of giving total control of their finances to someone else—even their own offspring—until absolutely necessary,” says Bragar. “In many cases, I agree with them.”

3. Your parent is mentally competent, but wants help with routine money-management tasks, like paying bills or dealing with financial institutions. The helper should have a narrow power of attorney agreement, limiting the stand-in’s authority to such chores.

For example, your mom could grant you the right to sign checks on her bank account—period. Your parent’s financial institution can provide you with forms allowing power of attorney for specific accounts.

4. One of your parents doesn't want to inherit the financial responsibilities of his or her spouse. “Sometimes a spouse doesn’t want to deal with investments, business decisions or estate-planning issues,” says Bragar. “In that case it makes sense to give at least some of those powers to a trusted financial adviser or attorney.”

5. Your parents need help within a particular time frame. If your mother or father is traveling or temporarily incapacitated, he or she can grant power of attorney for a specific period of time.

Dealing With Power-of-Attorney Forms

Although each state has its own forms (to find them, Google “power of attorney,” followed by your state), you ordinarily don't need to use state-specific forms unless the agreement covers real estate transactions.
 
Most law firms can provide clients with proper paperwork. Alternatively, you can use free generic applications like those available at the Rocket Lawyer or Legal Zoom websites.
 
The form will also note which powers are being granted, the time frame and whether there are any specific limitations. If your parents want to give power of attorney status to more than one person, they can specify whether those people can act independently or if they must act jointly.
 
After you get the form notarized, you’ll want to give copies to your parents’ financial adviser or attorney as well as everyone granted power of attorney.
 
If your parents aren’t able to go to a notary, you could hire a mobile notary service to come to their home; an Internet search should turn up several local options. Or you might try Signnow.com, which lets you get documents notarized online for $14.99.
 
The entire process is somewhat onerous, but your parents (and everyone else involved) may one day be very glad they made the effort.

Harper Willis is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared on Next Avenue, TheStreet.com and WSJ.com.