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What is a power of attorney and do you need one?

Perhaps you have heard of powers of attorney (POA) and are wondering if you should have one. Or, maybe you have an elderly parent who may soon need help making financial or medical decisions. These are all great reasons to learn more about powers of attorney and what they can do. There are several types of powers of attorney in Pennsylvania:

 

 

  • Durable financial power of attorney. When you hear the term "power of attorney," you are probably thinking of a durable financial POA. In a financial POA, the person signing the document (the "principal") appoints an agent to help with financial matters, like balancing a checkbook, paying bills or filing taxes. The term "durable" means that the agent can still act if the principal becomes incapacitated.
  • Health care power of attorney. A health care POA is like a financial POA only it appoints an agent to act on your behalf for health care decisions. The agent makes decisions about treatments, placement in a nursing home or other care facility and choosing caregivers.
  • Living wills. Living wills deal with the type of medical treatment a patient does or does not want when the patient can no longer communicate and has an end stage medical condition or is in persistent vegetative state, like a coma. Living wills specifically address end-of-life treatment and appoint an agent to make these decisions. Living wills are often combined with health care POAs.
  • Mental health care power of attorney. Also called a mental health advance directive in Pennsylvania, this type of POA is specific to people with a mental illness. The mental health POA allows the principal to express his or her wishes about treatment before the treatment is needed and to appoint an agent to make mental health treatment decisions if the principal is unable to do so.

Many people ask when they should have POAs prepared. You never know when an accident or medical emergency will strike, leaving you unable to make decisions for yourself. Of course, the likelihood of needing a POA increases with age. The important thing to remember is that you must sign a POA before you need it because, under Pennsylvania law, you must be mentally competent to sign a POA.

If your elderly parent does not have any form of a POA, now is the time to talk to them about getting one. You may select different agents for your health care POA than your financial POA, but always choose someone you trust to honor your wishes. It is better to plan who will help you if you become incapacitated by having POAs prepared now.

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