A durable power of attorney is an extremely important estate planning tool, even more important than a will in many cases. This crucial document allows a person you appoint — your “attorney-in-fact” or “agent” — to act in place of you — the “principal” — for financial purposes when and if you ever become incapacitated due to dementia or some other reason. The agent under the power of attorney can quickly step in and take care of your affairs.
But in order to execute a power of attorney and name an agent to stand in your shoes, you need to have capacity. Regrettably, many people delay completing this vital estate planning step until it’s too late and they no longer are legally capable of doing it.
What happens then? Without a durable power of attorney, no one can represent you unless a court appoints a conservator or guardian. That court process takes time, costs money, and the judge may not choose the person you would prefer. In addition, under a guardianship or conservatorship, the representative may have to seek court permission to take planning steps that he or she could have implemented immediately under a simple durable power of attorney.
This is why it’s so important that you have a durable power of attorney in place before the capacity to execute the document is lost. The standard of capacity with respect to durable powers of attorney varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Some courts and practitioners argue that this threshold can be quite low: the client need only know that he trusts the agent to manage his financial affairs. Others argue that since the agent generally has the right to enter into contracts on behalf of the principal, the principal should have the capacity to enter into contracts as well, and the threshold for entering into contracts is fairly high.
If you do not have someone you trust to appoint as your agent, it may be more appropriate to have the probate court looking over the shoulder of the person who is handling your affairs through a guardianship or conservatorship. In that case, you may execute a limited durable power of attorney that simply nominates the person you want to serve as your conservator or guardian. Most states require the court to respect your nomination “except for good cause or disqualification.”
Because you need a third party to assess capacity and because you need to be certain that the formal legal requirements are followed, it can be risky to prepare and execute legal documents on your own without representation by an attorney. To execute a durable power of attorney before it’s too late, contact your elder law attorney.
Saying that there has been “undue influence” is often used as a reason to contest a will or estate plan, but what does it mean?
Undue influence occurs when someone exerts pressure on an individual, causing that individual to act contrary to his or her wishes and to the benefit of the influencer or the influencer’s friends. The pressure can take the form of deception, harassment, threats, or isolation. Often the influencer separates the individual from their loved ones in order to coerce. The elderly and infirm are usually more susceptible to undue influence.
To prove a loved one was subject to undue influence in drafting an estate plan, you have to show that the loved one disposed of his or her property in a way that was unexpected under the circumstances, that he or she is susceptible to undue influence (because of illness, age, frailty, or a special relationship with the influencer), and that the person who exerted the influence had the opportunity to do so. Generally, the burden of proving undue influence is on the person asserting undue influence. However, if the alleged influencer had a fiduciary relationship with your loved one, the burden may be on the influencer to prove that there was no undue influence. People who have a fiduciary relationship can include a child, a spouse, or an agent under a power of attorney. For more information on contesting a will, go here.
When drawing up a will or estate plan, it is important to avoid even the appearance of undue influence. For example, if you are planning on leaving everything to your daughter who is also your primary caregiver, your other children may argue that your daughter took advantage of her position to influence you. To avoid the appearance of undue influence, do not involve any family members who are inheriting under your will in drafting your will. Family members should not be present when you discuss the will with your attorney or when you sign it. To be totally safe, family members shouldn’t even drive or accompany you to the attorney’s office. You can also get a formal assessment of your mental capabilities done by a medical professional before you draft estate planning documents. For more information on preventing a will contest, go here.