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Understanding Power of Attorney

There's more to estate planning than deciding who will get your money after you die. Estate planning also means deciding who will manage your business and legal affairs if you ever become incapacitated.

What You Should Know

A Power of Attorney is a legal document in which you give another person legal authority to act for you. The Power of Attorney can cover simple tasks like writing or endorsing checks. It can also involve more complex matters like selling real estate.

The Power of Attorney can be very specific or very general. You can authorize just one task, like selling a car. Or, you can give your agent the power to do everything you can now do for yourself. Your attorney will be able to help you understand how you can tailor the Power of Attorney to fit your wishes and needs.

Choosing Your Agent

You can give Power of Attorney to anyone you choose. Your agent does not have to be an attorney. Choose someone you can trust. It might be your daughter, or your brother, sister, or spouse. Be sure to ask an attorney to draw up the documents.

Don't be concerned that your agent will "take over" or that you won't be able to make your own decisions. Think of a Power of Attorney as giving someone a second set of keys. You will still have your own keys, but your agent will have keys, too. You can take the agent's keys back any time you want, by revoking the Power of Attorney.

Types of Power of Attorney

The are four types of Power of Attorney. The type you choose will depend on how much authority you want your agent to have; when you want your agent to start acting on your behalf; and when you want your agent's authority to come to an end.

Limited Power of Attorney. Through a limited Power of Attorney you authorize another person to do specific things for you for a limited period of time, or in certain circumstances. The limited Power of Attorney ends if you become incapacitated or die. It also could end at a time that you specify in the document.

General Power of Attorney. A general Power of Attorney gives another person the authority to do whatever you can do. Think very carefully before signing this type of document. It should be used sparingly. This document ends when you become incapacitated or die.

Durable Power of Attorney. A durable Power of Attorney authorizes your agent to continue to act for you after you become incapacitated. This document ends at your death. It can take effect as soon as you sign it.

Springing Power of Attorney. A springing Power of Attorney can be written so it goes into effect if you become incapacitated. Be very careful to define clearly exactly how others will determine that the "springing event" has occurred.

Financial and Medical Powers of Attorney

You will probably want separate Powers of Attorney for finances and health care. Within each legal document, you specify the terms your chosen agent must follow in carrying out your wishes.

A durable Financial Power of Attorney allows your agent to carry out financial tasks for you when you cannot do so. This might include paying your bills, managing your property, and handling other money matters.

A durable Medical Power of Attorney lets your agent make medical decisions for you when you can't make these decisions.

For More Information

AARP Legal Services Network

AARP members in a growing number of communities can get a financial Power of Attorney for $35 from a Legal Services Network attorney. To find an LSN attorney in your area, visit the LSN area of and click on "Finding a Lawyer."


AARP's Legal Counsel for the Elderly

AARP's Legal Counsel for the Elderly distributes several publications relating to living trusts and other end-of-life decisions. Each publication is available for $5. Send a check or money order (payable to LCE, Inc.) to: Legal Counsel for the Elderly, Inc., PO Box 96474, Washington, DC 20090-6474. Be sure to include your name and address. Specify the name of the publication and its stock number, which appears below in parentheses. Some examples:

  • "Organizing Your Future: A Guide to Decision-Making in Your Later Years" (D13877) uses a question-and-answer format to explain the planning and legal tools that can help you exercise control over major life decisions if you become incapacitated.
  • "Planning for Incapacity" (D14513) is a state-specific, step-by-step guide to making your health care wishes known. The guide contains forms that comply with your state's laws.

The Missouri Bar Association

The Missouri Bar Association has published a short guide to "Durable Powers of Attorney," which you read on the association's Web site. The brochure defines Durable Power of Attorney and what powers it grants.


Nolo Press

Nolo Press publishes books, software, and a Web site to help consumers understand legal issues. Visit the Nolo Press Web site for information about Powers of Attorney:

  • "Durable Power of Attorney for Finances FAQ"
  • "Do You Need a Durable Power of Attorney for Finances?"
  • "Preventing Challenges to Your Durable Power of Attorney for Finances"



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