Every estate planning blog, including this one, stresses the importance of filling out a power of attorney when you sit down with an attorney to write your will and other end-of-life documents. These forms let you choose a person who can make legal, financial, and even health care decisions on your behalf if you become mentally or physically incapacitated.
People who have a power of attorney form – known as someone’s agent or attorney in fact – can sign checks, sell real estate, and place you in a long-term care facility without you knowing what’s happening. And you’re probably also wondering, can a power of attorney change a will?
Luckily, the answer to this question is: “No.” Simply put, a person’s will is his or her declaration of how they want their estate to be distributed when they die. Only the person who owns these assets can make this declaration – otherwise, the state wouldn’t need a process to distribute your assets if you died intestate – which means only you can write or change your will.
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Still, it’s important to know what you’re doing when you choose an agent or an attorney-in-fact. That’s because even though someone with a power of attorney cannot change your will, he or she can sell your house, put you in a substandard retirement home, and put your car in their name.
Here are a couple of ways to protect yourself and your family when setting up a power of attorney:
- Choose someone you trust — It’s important to trust the person you name as your attorney-in-fact to do that is best for you and what you want them to do. Make sure this person understands why you’re making the decisions you’re making – especially when it comes to end-of-life choices – so they can explain them to your loved one when you cannot.
- Share the load — Nothing keeps you from having more than one agent or attorney-in-fact. Most estate planners will even suggest picking a financial power of attorney to manage your financial or business affairs and a health care power of attorney to handle your health care decisions. Sharing the load in this way lessens your agent’s workload and protects your interests by inviting a second person to review the decisions made on your behalf.
- Set a time limit – It’s also a good idea to include an expiration date with your power of attorney form so you have to review it every couple of years. This step gives you a chance to make sure the person you initially chose to be your agent hasn’t dead and update the document to reflect any other changes in your assets, relationships, or end-of-life choices.
If you’ve still got questions about setting up a power of attorney, which we are sure you do, then one of the best places to get them answered is during a free estate planning workshop offered by PlanningCommunities.org.