Most adults have heard of something called a power of attorney (POA). This is a legal document wherein a person (called the principal) gives a trustworthy individual (known as the agent) the legal authority to act on their behalf and carry out specific actions as set forth in the document.
People usually work with an attorney to draw up important legal documents (or at the very least review them), but templates and downloadable forms have become increasingly common online. Is it advisable to avoid hiring an attorney and simply buy a POA form off the internet instead? As an attorney who has prepared POA forms for more than 25 years, my professional opinion is that, while some online forms are better than others, none of them is worth paying for.
Reasons to Avoid Using a POA Template
- No Customization
First of all, with a generic fill-in-the-blank form, there is no interview process to learn about the principal’s medical, legal and financial situation. This information should guide what kinds of clauses are appropriate to include in the document and which should be omitted or modified. For example, should the agent have the authority to make gifts to certain family members? If so, how should that be determined and limited? Might some consideration be given to the possibility that the principal may need to move to a nursing home someday? Might they need to apply for Medicaid? If so, it is crucial to include very specific clauses related to Medicaid planning in the POA document.
- No Professional Counsel
Second, there is no one with legal experience to assist in determining who should be named as the agent (typically an adult child) and who should be named as the successor agent. An attorney’s assistance is crucial when deciding whether the powers put forth in the document should be effective immediately or upon the principal’s incompetence, and, if the latter, under what circumstances. A few simple words can completely change the way in which a power of attorney document functions.
Furthermore, requirements for POA documents vary by state. A generic POA template purchased online may not have the correct wording or components needed to be valid where the principal lives.
- No Legal Witnesses
Third, there is no one present to witness the document’s signing who can vouch for the mental capacity of the principal. This makes it impossible to avoid later claims that the form is invalid. (Yes, sometimes other family members become resentful of the person who was named as the agent and try to invalidate the POA document.) Again, most states require that a POA must be witnessed by two witnesses and notarized.
- No Quality Assurance
Finally, online legal forms vary tremendously in quality and thoroughness, and most laypeople will have no way of differentiating the good from the bad. Merely “looking official” is not sufficient. A POA is a very powerful document that can give someone total control over one’s finances and/or healthcare. For example, if you sign one, you are giving another person the power to empty out your bank account, sell your house, possibly make gifts to people you don’t approve of, move you from one residence to another, make medical decisions for you, etc.
Note that the cost to have a lawyer-prepared POA is usually quite modest—under $200 in many cities. Look for an attorney who specializes in estate planning and/or elder law to ensure you receive the most appropriate, up-to-date advice and forms.