Consider Power of Attorney Designations Carefully


I'm sure Myrtle (not her real name) didn't mean to create a monster. She wanted her lawyer, Sharon, to be the agent for healthcare, together with her out-of-state son. She was worried that her daughters would want her to get more treatment than she cared to get. But they never talked about it. The rational conversation never took place. Myrtle was uncomfortable with it, so she just skipped that part of her responsibilities in planning for aging.

Myrtle got sick and had to go to a nursing home as time passed. Her son, Reggie, never visited. Instead, he hired a care manager. Sounds like a good idea, usually. But this particular care manager was more interested in collecting her monthly fee than checking on Myrtle, to really find out if she was safe in that nursing home.

Myrtle had two daughters who lived nearby, and were close to the nursing home. They visited often. Sharon (the lawyer) didn't want them to know what was going on with their mother. She was convinced that Myrtle's daughters would "interfere" and ask for care their mother didn't want, so she made sure they couldn't ask for anything for their mom.

She gave orders to the staff at the nursing home that they were not to communicate with either of Myrtle's daughters. The daughters visited often, hoping that Sharon wouldn't stop them from seeing their mom, which she could have done. Between the two of them, they saw their mom nearly every day for six years, but no nurse could ever tell them how mom was doing, and they were forbidden to ask anything of the doctor in charge.

Mom, under the "care" of the lax and indifferent care manager, developed a pressure ulcer, stage 4, the worst possible stage, with bone showing through the open sore, while the care manager was supposed to be checking on her and being sure Myrtle was taken care of properly. Sharon took no responsibility. Her daughters reported it to authorities and they complained to the state. As long as the power of attorney was the lawyer, no one would act.

The daughters fought back. They hired their own lawyer and tried to have a conservatorship imposed by the court. Their lawyer was inexperienced, and it didn't go well. The daughters lost. Now, Sharon turned on the daughters with a vengeance.

She did everything she could to keep the daughters from getting information from any doctor, nurse, or even hospice once comfort care was brought in toward the end of Myrtle's life. Sharon forbade the daughters from talking to anyone to find out if their mother was dying, and how much time she had left.

All this was done in the name of Sharon doing what their mother wanted, according to Sharon. She used her legal authority to abuse the children of her client. And there was nothing they could do to stop her. She was the power of attorney.

Was there anything more these daughters could have done to at least be able to find out if their mother was dying? No, not with Sharon in charge, it was perfectly legal.

Getting POA Before a Parent Gets Sick

What can all the rest of us learn from the daughters' nightmare?

The lesson here is to take the time to have an honest conversation with adult children about appointing a power of attorney before you lose your ability to make decisions. Disease, dementia, strokes or anything else can cause you to become incompetent.

Be open and honest. Don't be afraid of hurting your kids' feelings. Talk about all of it. If you go outside the family to appoint anyone as your agent for healthcare, be sure it is a compassionate person who will work with, and not against your family.

Myrtle didn't pre-plan with these thoughts in mind. She then became incompetent as time passed. No one could change the power of attorney after that. Her choice to use a lawyer was an unfortunate one, because this particular lawyer used the law vengefully. Be careful whom you trust. In this case, this was a terrible choice of power of attorney.

Most lawyers can be counted on to do the right thing. This was an unusual case, as the lawyer refused to consider anyone else's point of view. This was a tragedy that could have been avoided. Myrtle could have met with her kids, discussed her end-of-life wishes and asked them to all cooperate. The daughters would have respected that. They loved her. Instead, she lived her last days with daughters who suffered from being kept in the dark about her dying. It was grief on top of grief, and they will never forget the horror.

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When it comes to power of attorney, I believe the important thing about this story isn't the fact that the lawyer was the "family outsider" who didn't have others' interests at heart but how, in general, to make a WISE power of attorney situation, be it a lawyer, family member or anybody else.

A parent should be careful who they give power of attorney to even amongst blood relatives — especially among siblings!

It's easy to appoint the most successful, educated or assertive member of the family but in my view the number one consideration a parent should have pertains to temperament. When you were raising your kids did you see one kid step on the other kid again and again — but the child being out-done or out-maneuvered never failed to forgive and forget? Well, then don't go choosing the more savvy, manipulative child. If you must err, do not fear that the burden will be too much for the amicable but seemingly more passive adult child. Your illness and eventual death is not a time to put someone who tends to be "high strung" in charge of your affairs — not because they may damage YOU but because of the drama that will no doubt occur when that child cannot keep peace with others.

If an adult child easily becomes defensive or has a history of rejecting others for petty reasons, do not expect the fact that he/she is "family" to put him/her on his/her best behavior. Stressful situations put people on edge; they do not necessarily call up the best and most rational of a person's facilities. Therefore, if one's adult kids are prone to quarreling, estrangements, gossip or stony silences, think twice before burdening that adult child with power of attorney duties.

Just because an adult child has shown success/responsibility in their own affairs does not mean they are the most drama-free, objective person to deal with YOUR affairs. Power of attorney should be given to someone who is above all calm — someone without a vindictive bone in their body.

It's easy to assume that your most outspoken child will have your back, and while that might be true do not overlook that if this particular person is strongly opinionated they may alienate the rest of the family in the course of your care.

If you want your adult children's relationships to survive your death, think very very hard about who you put in charge. The family member that seems most likely to "protect" you may in fact turn out to be the most possessive, whereas the one who is always ready to step out of the way and allow others to lead may in fact work harder to keep more dominant family members happy, in so doing not only remaining cool-headed about your care but effective in keeping the peace.
I have just read through all of the comments for this story. It breaks my heart, all the sadness and pain! It also makes me feel not so alone... I thought my situation was bad,but now I know better!
My husband's uncle, who was like a father to him, had a massive stroke that caused dementia. We later found out that he had had many smaller strokes over the previous 5 yrs that had caused a milder dementia. We had noticed the decline but had no power to do anything. His uncle has no other family close to him, no wife or children. After the stroke the uncle's friends started to visit him in the rehab facility and took over his health care. They could do that because there was no medical POA designated. The rehab place began to ignore us but my husband talked to them and said we'd be taking care of him, not his friends. We were living with him when he had the stroke.
Since he has dementia he has lost his cognition and isn't really all there, but the stroke only affected his brain. His body is fine, so he tells his friends that he is ok and he doesn't need to be in the rehab. His friends told us they think that he didn't really have a stroke, that we have been stressing him out by upsetting him and that's what's wrong with him. He has dementia, which causes him to become agitated and to do weird things. We didn't know that's why he was doing what he was doing, so we did confront him when he did these things. He would get mad, but it wasn't our intention to make him upset. He also lies, and now that he's had a stroke he says all kinds of things. He has said that he gave us $100,000, then he said it was $50,000. He has given us money but not that much and we can prove it.
He also wants to live alone but his doctor told him he needs 24/7 care to make sure he doesn't injure himself. He's not fully functioning. My husband offered to be the caregiver in exchange for a fraction of the cost of a health care worker. It would mean one of us was with him 24/7, my husband would not have a job, we would have to give up vacations, etc, and spend all of our time with a very difficult person. We were willing, though because it would save him money, we already lived there, we know him best, etc. The uncle thought this was a good idea.
He told his friends that we would be his caregivers and that he would be paying my husband. Combined with the comments about giving us thousands of dollars, this sent them over the edge. They are convinced that we are milking him for money! The day he got out of the rehab he made my husband's 21 yo daughter his main POA, along with an obscure friend. Apparently he had planned to do this before. We aren't sure why he chose these people, but my husband had already told him he didn't want that responsibility (for obvious reasons). His daughter is acting like a mini-Hitler in concert with the obscure friend and believes everything they tell her about us. They are accusing us of elder abuse, of trying to bully him out of money, etc. The final straw was when he got out of rehab and returned home. We had told the POA's that we would be out by the end of the month (it was about the 5th of the month) but they had a meeting at the house (without inviting us but talked loud enough so we could hear). In the meeting the friend said very loudly that he would go to the sheriff tomorrow and get an eviction! They also got the uncle to say that "he never wanted to see us again, ever." We were floored and flabbergasted. There was no reason to treat us like criminals and we had no chance to prove our innocence. We are his closest family!
It got worse, though, when they went and got a restraining order! I'm embarrassed to even write this here...because it probably sounds like we are the most awful people! We do care about him and he never gave us that kind of money. Surely they could see that in his account? We agreed to leave peaceably in the first place, eviction wasn't necessary and and restraining order was just ludicrous!
Today we go to court with a lawyer to try and get the restraining order stopped. The allegations were written out by the friend but the uncle signed it. I don't think he knows what he signed. He also came to my husband and said that he wanted to know where he was and what he was doing in the future. Then the next day he said he never wanted to see him again. I know he's confused and can't remember. I also know that his "friends" are putting their values and their take on things without trying to find the truth... To us they are the ones abusing him, forcing him to do things he wouldn't ever do. Some stranger with a dog is going to live with him for free and be his caregiver (he is not a trained health care worker and we were never allowed to have a dog at his house...) He didn't want a stranger in his house! He told us that many times...
It has helped me immensely to read everyone's stories and my heart goes out to all of you that are in these terrible messed up situations! I encourage everyone to sign the free living will -
That way we have at least taken care of our own affairs - and please have a will, look in to a POA, etc. Our elders may have dropped the ball, but we know better!
Please take into consideration Medicare and Social Security Administration issues when caring for your aging parents. Medicare can accept and recognize a Power of Attorney (POA), however, the Social Security Administration does not recognize a POA. In order to assist your aging parents concerning any issues with the Social Security Administration, you may want to become their Representative Payee. In addition, a Representative Payee is also recognized by Medicare. As their representative payee you could handle any Social Security or Medicare issues the same as if they were handling them. Contact your local Social Security office to request information on becoming a Representative Payee.