Thursday, September 4, 2014

Stop asking me to write powers of attorney for your demented family members.

People call me all the time asking me to write a power of attorney for the caller's mother, father, grandfather or uncle. The call usually goes something like this:

Clara Client: "My mother has Alzheimers and the bank says I need a power of attorney so I can take care of her money. If you write one up, I could pick it up this afternoon."

Me: "Describe her condition."

Carla Client: "She is forgetful. She leaves the stove on and can't operate the remote on the television any more. She needs someone to take care of her money and everyone says I need a power of attorney.

Me: "If she were presented with a power of attorney, would she be able to read and understand it."

Carla Client: "No. Well, maybe if it was in the morning, but she want's me to take care of her money."

Me: "Could she come in and see me?"

Clara Client: "She doesn't like to go out anymore, she wants me to take care of if.

Let's get this clear. I am never going to write this power of attorney, and a lawyer who will do it is crazy.

I write estate planning and related documents for clients of mine. If Clara Client's mother came in and wanted to name Clara as her agent in a power of attorney--and I thought that the mother had the capacity to understand the document--I would be pleased to write it. I do this sort of thing all the time. However, when a client comes in--the client being the person who is in my office--and wants me to write estate planning documents for someone else, I get scared.

Estate planning documents are not like leases and sales contracts. If you wanted to sell or lease a building to a third party, a lawyer might write the lease for you. You could present it to the proposed tenant, and the tenant would understand that the lawyer who wrote the document was working for you. The tenant might or might not get a lawyer to review the document, but the tenant would not think your lawyer was looking out for him. In estate planning it is different. When Clara client takes that power of attorney to her mother, her mother might reasonably believe that I wrote the document with the mother's best interests in mind, and that I was watching out for her. According to the rules that govern lawyers, if a person reasonably believes that I am watching out for her then that person is my client. So in the case of Clara, Clara's mother becomes my client even if I have never met her. Now I have two clients, Clara, who is paying me and Clara's mother, who has never met me. This has big implications and is the kind of thing that keeps me awake at night.

To me, a client who asks me to write a power of attorney for a third party is little different from a client asking me to write a will for a third party. I have had that happen. "My grandfather wants to leave everything to me. You write up a will saying that, and I will get him to sign it." Very few people have a hard time seeing what is wrong with this, but quite a few people see no problem with, "My grandfather wants to put all of his money under my control. You write that up and I will have him sign it."

I simply cannot be associated with creating a will or a power of attorney for a person who I have never met, and probably doesn't have the cognitive capacity to understand the document.

What might go wrong? In many cases, nothing goes wrong. I write the power of attorney for Clara Client. She uses is honestly and wisely and everybody is happy. Great. It all worked out and I made a hundred bucks off of my power of attorney form.

Ah, but what about the other cases. Clara Client takes the form I wrote, gets her mother to sign it, and uses the form to steal every cent her mother had. When the rest of the family figures this out, Clara is long gone and they go looking for someone to sue. Who do they look to? That's right, me. I am the guy who wrote a power of attorney, the tool by which the theft occurred, and after I wrote it, I gave it to the thief. Furthermore, I knew, while writing it, that Clara's mother probably didn't have the capacity to understand the document. I am on the hook for everything Clara took.

Here is the deal. If you want to stick a power of attorney in front of your demented relative and hope that it all works out, go down to Office Depot or download one on the internet. If the power of attorney is thereafter used properly--that is all expenditures by the agent are recorded, accounted for, and made for the benefit of the principal--everybody will be fine and you will have saved a hundred bucks. If the power of attorney is used improperly--by handing out grandma's money to relatives--when Adult Protective Services or the police come looking for Clara, I will be sleeping sound and secure in the knowledge that I had nothing to do with it. That's the way I want it.

Doing it this way even has some advantages for Clara. Let's assume Clara gets a power of attorney from Legal Zoom on the internet and leaves me out of it. Later it turns out that the power of attorney is insufficient protection and Clara needs to establish a guardianship or a conservatorship. I can take that case because I have never acted as attorney for her mother. Had I written the power of attorney, it is highly likely that Clara's mother would believe that I was protecting her legal interests. As I described above, that makes her my client, and once she becomes my client I am disqualified from ever bringing a guardianship or conservatorship case against her. Clara won't be getting a guardianship from Legal Zoom and she may be thankful that I am available for the job.

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