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Do you trust the person who has your power of attorney?

A power of attorney is a legal document that authorizes someone to act on your behalf, and it's considered an essential tool of modern estate planning.

The intention behind a POA is to give someone the ability to take over handling your affairs when you are unable to do so. The vast majority of the time, POAs are used when someone is ill or incapacitated in some way. For example, if you have severe mobility issues, it may be difficult for you to handle a task like your banking in person. If you give a trusted relative your POA, he or she can do that on your behalf. If you ever become a victim of dementia, a POA can save you from being defrauded or making your own serious financial errors.

However, POAs can be a little intimidating to fill out. You are giving someone else a significant amount of control over your life. For example, once that piece of paper is in the other person's hands, he or she could easily wipe out your savings account—and it would be perfectly legal.

Some people attempt to ease their concerns by using what's known as a "springing" POA, which only goes into effect under certain circumstances. For example, one version might require two doctors to attest that they've examined you and find you to be unable to manage your own affairs. Another might put the responsibility to make that decision on a different member of the family, so that the POA is prevented from acting solely on his or her own opinion.

However, that can create a whole new host of problems and end up defeating the very purpose you for which you created the POA. Doctors may be reluctant to commit, family members may disagree—while important tasks are left undone, leaving your life in disarray. The issue can even end up in court if the people involved can't agree—which puts the decision in the hands of a judge that doesn't even know you.

Ultimately, that means that you have to ask yourself, "Who do you trust enough for this task?" It might be a family member or it might be a friend that's closer than family.

Because a power of attorney is so important, it's wise to seek out the advice of an attorney when making decisions about the power you are granting someone else and on what terms.

Source: The Balance, "Springing vs. Non-springing Powers of Attorney," Patti Spencer, accessed Jan. 13, 2017

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