Not everyone is ready to act as power of attorney (POA) for an elderly parent. There are many reasons adult children and others named as POA may need to decline, says Cheryl David, an elder law attorney in Greensboro, North Carolina. “Becoming someone’s power of attorney is a monumental job,” says David. “The task should not be entered into without great thought.”
Learn about power of attorney responsibilities and alternate options. Then answer six questions to see if you’re ready for the role.
What is power of attorney?
A power of attorney is a document, signed by a competent adult called “the principal,” that grants a trusted person the power to make decisions on their behalf if the principal is unable to. This trusted person is called “the agent.”
It’s the agent’s job to make sure the principal — in this case their aging parent or loved one — is well cared for. Being named agent in your elderly loved one’s power of attorney is a serious responsibility.
Most seniors will execute multiple types of power of attorney as they age. Two of the most common are general and medical POAs.
- A general or financial power of attorney is comprehensive: It gives a senior’s agent power to act on their behalf financially and legally. General power of attorney can be used for healthy parents who want help with financial or personal matters.
- A medical power of attorney — also known as a health care proxy or health care agent — is someone who makes medical decisions for the principal if they’re incapacitated. It’s their job to ensure a senior’s wishes, as stated in their advance directive or living will, are upheld.
Can you refuse power of attorney duties?
Sometimes, taking on the responsibility of a power of attorney isn’t feasible. There are many reasons an adult child may not be prepared or able to act as power of attorney for an elderly parent.
Be honest, and let them know that if something happened to them today, you wouldn’t be in a position to do this.John Ross, elder law attorney
Consider these six factors, and ask yourself the following questions before accepting POA responsibilities:
- Location. Relatives may live across the country with their own families and be unable to travel.
Ask yourself: Am I able to drop everything — maybe for weeks or months — and be away from my family and job? Can I afford the travel?
- Emotional capacity. A medical or durable power of attorney — meaning that it stays in effect even if a senior becomes incapacitated — may require tough end-of-life decisions. These emotional choices could be overwhelming.
Ask yourself: Am I emotionally prepared to make life-or-death decisions? Will my personal feelings prevent me from following my loved one’s wishes?
- Career. Someone who has a 60-hour workweek may not be able to devote the necessary time to medical appointments and care.
Ask yourself: Do I have the time to devote myself to power of attorney responsibilities? Will it lead to me losing my job due to missed days or poor performance?
- Safety of the elderly loved one. If a potential POA is struggling with addiction or living in an abusive environment, those circumstances could be detrimental to the health and well-being of an elderly relative.
Ask yourself: Would personal circumstances prevent me from devoting myself to caring for an aging relative at this time?
- Family. Sibling relationships can be complicated by POA choices. An adult child may realize that their siblings would fight the decision, leading to arguments or legal battles.
Ask yourself: How will my family react? Would my siblings fight my decisions or question my motives? Can I deal with that dynamic?
- Finances. A relative who manages money badly or has significant debt may not want to act as financial power of attorney.
Ask yourself: Can I manage my own money? Will I provide financial support for my elderly parents, or might I spend their money inappropriately based on my own financial struggles?
What if things change? Consider an alternate power of attorney
If you aren’t ready for the role of POA, it’s best to have a direct conversation with your loved one about your trepidation, says John Ross, an elder law attorney in Texarkana, Texas. “Be honest, and let them know that if something happened to them today, you wouldn’t be in a position to do this.”
If you think you’ll be able to commit to the role, but you’re concerned your circumstances may change, suggest that your aging relative draft their power of attorney form with alternates. “I usually tell people to have as many alternates as people that you trust implicitly,” says Ross.
Experts recommend a backup plan because it’s “highly likely” that a relative won’t be able to carry out power of attorney duties when the time comes, according to David. “We build alternatives into a POA to cover the inevitability that someone may not be able to serve.”
Who else can serve as power of attorney?
If you and your siblings aren’t ready to take on power of attorney responsibilities, there are other options.
“Tell your loved one that you’re concerned about them enough to tell them you’re not the right person,” says Ross. Then help set up an alternative plan to make sure your loved one’s needs are met.
- A trusted friend could act as POA — the role doesn’t require a relative. If the friend is also elderly or in poor health, ensure there’s a designated alternate.
- Professional fiduciaries tend to be trust company officers, certified public accountants, or attorneys who are willing to take on the role of power of attorney for clients.
- An agency arrangement with a bank allows the institution to take on basic bill paying and some financial matters when a senior becomes incapacitated.
- A revocable trust can be written so that a bank or business is a successor trustee. An attorney can even set up the POA so that a designated family member can “fire” the bank in case of incompetence.