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What is a power of attorney document for?

A power of attorney document can help older adults and their families deal with future care. But, knowing what these documents can accomplish and their restrictions and is an important part of estate planning. A power of attorney allows the person granting the power, the "principal," to decide whom they trust to act on their behalf when they become incapacitated or unable to make decisions. That person is referred to as an "agent."

A medical power of attorney grants the agent the ability to make decisions about the heath care that the principal receives. A financial power of attorney grants the agent the power to make business and financial decisions. The principal may grant both powers to the same agent. A health care agent may decide the hospital care, surgery, psychiatric treatment, home health care and other medical care that the principal receives, the doctors and health care providers providing care, what the principal eats and who bathes and provides other personal care to the principal. The agent also makes decisions on assisted living, memory care, nursing homes and other residential long-term care. These choices must be affordable, and the financial power of attorney must approve this expense.

Under a financial power of attorney, the agent can use the principal's finances to pay for health care, housing and other expenses. The agent may be able to file the principal's taxes, collect the principal's debts, manage their property and apply for government benefits on the principal's behalf, such as Medicaid and veteran's benefits.

Agents must always act in the principal's best interest. They may never break this duty of trust. An agent cannot change the principal's will. They cannot make decisions on the principal's behalf after a principal dies unless the principal named the agent as their executor or the principal died without a will and the agent petitions to become estate administrator.

An agent may not change the power of attorney or transfer it to someone else. Agents may decline their appointment. Agents cannot choose who takes over their duties unless the agent named a co-agent in that document or is still competent to appoint some else to act on their behalf.

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