What is a Power of Attorney?

Many people have questions about powers of attorney, from how they’re used to when they expire. Some people simply ask: Just what is a power of attorney? You can find many books, CDs, forms, and other power of attorney resources at our Power of Attorney Books and Software Store.

Generally speaking, a Power of Attorney is a document you give to someone else that allows them to act on your behalf in certain situations. At some point in life, nearly everyone will need a power of attorney and a reliable, qualified agent to act on his or her behalf.

For example, if you were to become disabled you would likely need someone to act on your behalf to pay your bills; collect your income, sell your property, authorize medical treatment, and do all the things that you would normally do for yourself. Most people give a power of attorney to their spouse.

The alternative is a guardianship, which is a process by which a probate judge appoints someone to oversee your affairs if you become incapacitated. In a guardianship, a family member or friend typically petitions the probate court to grant him or her guardianship and/or conservatorship over the incapacitated person and his or her property. The court appoints the petitioner as guardian or conservator, but maintains oversight over the guardian’s actions and requires periodic reporting to the court.

Compared to a power of attorney, guardianship and conservatorship proceedings are much more time-consuming and expensive. But you might prefer to have it handled that way – especially if you don't have someone you can completely trust to manage your affairs.

If you give someone a power of attorney, you are considered to be the “principal” of the power of attorney. The person you entrust with the power to oversee your affairs is your “agent” or “attorney-in-fact.” This is where the term “attorney” comes from in power of attorney. Your attorney-in-fact need not be an actual licensed attorney or lawyer, but he or she is empowered to act on your behalf as your attorney in fact and has certain fiduciary duties to you.

Just because you give someone a power of attorney does not mean it will ever be used. It's just there in case it’s needed. You can also revoke it at any time.

We often receive questions about powers of attorney. So, here’s a short Power of Attorney FAQ List:

  • How do I decide who to give the power of attorney to or what’s the best way to pick my agent?
  • First, you need to be able to trust whomever you select. That person will likely have broad discretion to make significant decisions about your affairs. Preferably, you want someone who knows you well and would have a good idea of your wishes should the time come when they have to make decisions for you.

    In most cases, the power of attorney will include the authority to manage your financial affairs, sell your assets, pay your debts, etc. In that case, your agent should be knowledgeable and comfortable with financial matters.

  • How do I create a power of attorney?
  • Each state has different rules regarding the specifics of what is required for a valid power of attorney in that state. The differences are usually more about format, notary, and witness requirements rather than substantive differences. There are many books and software programs that can help you learn about and create a power of attorney. Click here to see some of those.

    You also can use an online service like Legal Zoom to easily and quickly create high quality powers of attorney.

    Here are links to articles that generally discuss power of attorney preparation in most states:

    State by State Power of Attorney Preparation Rules.

  • Where can I find free sample power of attorney forms?

    We don’t recommend using random free blank power of attorney forms you might pick up anywhere. You need to be sure you can trust that the source providing the form is legitimate and knowledgeable about powers of attorney. There is absolutely no substitute for discussing your individual circumstances with an attorney and having the attorney draft your power of attorney. You can find a qualified estate planning attorney who can draft your powers of attorney (as well as your will and/or living trust) at choosing an estate planning attorney.

    If you don’t want to speak to an attorney, however, and only require a simple power of attorney, you can find good sources of free power of attorney forms from a community organization or non-profit agency. Your local bar association might have a pro-bono program where lawyers offer their services to draft powers of attorney for free. Your state may provide statutory powers of attorney in the state legal code. One web resource we like that offers free online sample printable powers of attorney forms (that you can download) is Free Power of Attorney Form.

  • What are the different types of powers of attorney?

    There are many different types of powers of attorney. In fact, the different types are really only limited by the drafter’s imagination. A power of attorney can be crafted to allow or limit a virtually unlimited range of actions. However, there are a few POA types or categories that we should briefly discuss.

    Powers of attorney can be defined by two broad categories: General POAs and Special POAs. General powers of attorney are much broader and generally more vague than special powers of attorney. If you give someone a general power of attorney, you give them the power to do almost anything that you could do. Obviously, you should be extremely careful before doing this. Many people have been harmed by needlessly giving a general power of attorney to someone with whom they later had a falling out. Special powers of attorney are different because they are limited to the special or specific power you want to grant. Normally, it is safer to give Special POAs rather than General POAs. Some types of special POAs include:

- Financial Power of Attorney
- Medical (or Health Care) Power of Attorney
- Child Care Power of Attorney
- Real Estate Power Attorney
- Vehicle Power of Attorney; etc

It is also important, to consider whether you want your power of attorney to be "durable." A durable power of attorney will continue to be valid if you become mentally incompetent due to an accident or illness. In fact, a durable power of attorney will often state that it will go into effect only after a doctor certifies that you are mentally incapacitated.

We have many pages on this site with information about various power of attorney issues. Those pages include:

Use the scroll bar above to scroll to the right and find separate categories for power of attorney books, forms, software, medical or financial powers of attorney. You also can see your Amazon Wish List; search for other books (or any Amazon products); or read book and software reviews.

If you are shopping for an informative book for information about what a power of attorney is or about how to create a power of attorney -- our store will have the book, form or CD program you need.

We work with Amazon.com to bring you probably the biggest possible selection of books and other products. And, you will have a hard time beating Amazon's price. They also offer a used book option for many titles.

You'll notice the books and software items are listed in order of popularity on Amazon. Naturally, if lots of people are buying a particular book, it's probably a useful resource for power of attorney questions. And, if you click on the book, you will find that many have summaries, book reviews, reader opinions, and even short passages from the book.

Some of the books people often buy for power of attorney information are:

  • Estate & Trust Administration for Dummies by Margaret Atkins Munro
  • Powers of Attorney Simplified by Daniel Sitarz, and
  • Power of Attorney Handbook (with CD Rom) by Edward Haman (He also has a Florida Power of Attorney Handbook that includes forms)

If you live in California you'll want to read the California Power of Attorney Handbook by John Talamo or NOLO's Living Wills & Powers of Attorney for California by Shae Irving.

As for software, you can't beat Quicken's WillMaker Plus 2009 for value and ease of use. Besides POA's, you can also use it to make wills, living trusts, health care directives, elder and child care forms, and many other legal documents. To find that, just scroll right and click the "Software" category.

Be sure to check out the other categories for power of attorney forms and books that include specific information about medical and financial powers of attorney.

Take your time browsing the many resources in the Power of Attorney Books and Software Store above. After you're done there, check out the more general Estate Planning Books Store.

Here’s an article about Durable Power Of Attorney Madicaid Considerations

Here’s our Tips For Discussing Wills and Powers Of Attorney with your parents

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--by Beth Heikkinen
Marquette, Michigan
I just want to thank you for this site. It answered my questions. I think many people that do research on the net take it for granted and when they find what they are looking for they forget "someone put time, money, etc into providing me with this information."

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