A power of attorney (POA) document legally enables a person (called the “principal”) to appoint a trusted relative or friend (called the “agent”), to handle specific health or legal and financial responsibilities on their behalf.

There are two types of power of attorney that afford different legal abilities. POA for healthcare gives an agent the authority to make medical decisions on behalf of the principal. POA for finances gives an agent the authority to make legal and financial decisions on behalf of the principal.

Defining the Scope of POA

These documents are crucial for enabling trustworthy family members to help manage an aging loved one’s medical care, bills and legal affairs. Specific powers - whether broad or limited, can be defined by you when the document is created. This assistance is invaluable for a senior who is incapable of making informed decisions for themselves. However, POA is also useful for seniors who are still competent but simply need an extra set of hands and eyes to help manage social security benefits, bills, long-term care decisions, etc.

Families should prepare these legal documents long before incapacitation is a factor. A simple accident or illness could cause a loved one to suddenly become incapacitated, but POA documents allow agents to immediately step in and help manage the situation. Without medical and financial POA, family members must go through a great deal of red tape and expense in order to obtain guardianship so they can make decisions on a loved one’s behalf. This includes healthcare decisions, especially regarding end-of-life care, long-term care decisions, Medicaid planning and much more.

Read: How to Get Guardianship of a Senior

Drafting POA documents well in advance is also an important part of preparing for the possibility of dementia. Most seniors do not receive a diagnosis of dementia until their condition has progressed significantly and they have suffered serious cognitive impairment. Being proactive is crucial because a principal must be competent in order to establish a POA. Many families wait until it is too late to draft these documents, and those in the later stages of Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia typically are not mentally capable of legally appointing agents to act on their behalf.

Durable POA

Because timing and a principal’s ability to make informed decisions are such important factors, there are two ways to write POA documents that can affect when they become “active” or “inactive.” With a durable POA, the document becomes effective immediately upon signing. The agent obtains legal authority to make decisions about matters detailed in the document and maintains it whether or not the principal ever becomes incapacitated.

Springing POA

On the other hand, a springing POA names an agent in advance but does not grant them legal authority for decision making until the principal becomes incapacitated. The difficulty with springing POA is that the principal must be incredibly careful when specifying what type of event will activate the agent’s powers. If it isn’t crystal clear what kind of incapacitation triggers the POA, then the family may have to waste precious time going to court to determine if the principal meets the POA document’s conditions for incompetency and whether the agents are able to assume their duties. In most cases, some sort of certification from a doctor regarding competency is required to activate a springing POA.

Temporary/ Non-durable POA

Less common in elder care legal planning is the non-durable POA. This type of POA takes effect immediately upon signing but does not remain effective once the principal is deemed incompetent. This type of POA is usually used in business transactions and is meant to grant an agent temporary authority to sign financial or legal documents when the principal is unavailable.

People often balk at the thought of preparing and signing a power of attorney document. Some may feel frightened at the prospect of losing their independence, and some are afraid that the agent they appoint may go against their wishes. It’s essential, of course, to choose an agent wisely and to discuss the scope of their ability to act on your behalf. Keep in mind that these documents can be revised or revoked at any time, as long as the principal is still competent. Otherwise, it stays in force until the principal dies. To learn more about power of attorney documents and other estate planning and legal matters, find a reputable elder law attorney in your area and make an appointment for a consultation.