Financial/Medical Power of Attorney

Lining Up Your Needed Agents

There are several types of power of attorney in Washington State. A power of attorney is a written, legal contract that authorizes someone (an agent) to act on behalf of someone else (a principal). Simply put, principals who become incapacitated sometimes need a competent individual to perform certain actions in order to take care of the principal or the principal’s estate. 

Harbor Law Firm strongly recommends for Washington estate planners to have two powers of attorney: one for finances and one for health care

Who Needs a Financial Power of Attorney?

Any adult who owns separate property or has separate bank accounts should consider protecting themselves with a durable power of attorney for finances. Even a short period of incapacity can cause serious problems for someone who hasn’t made arrangements.

Imagine, for example, that you’re in a serious car accident and in a coma, or must remain sedated while certain injuries heal. Your mortgage payment and car payment come due, and the money is sitting in your bank account—but no one has the legal authority to transfer those funds. Your parent or sibling or child contacts the lender to try to make arrangements, but the lender is legally prohibited from giving them any information. 

Or, the money isn’t in your account, but you have a large check sitting on your kitchen table waiting to be deposited—unsigned, so there’s no way to get the funds into your account. When the incapacity is short term, this can be inconvenient. Your cable might get disconnected and your cell phone service suspended. Your license plates may expire. Some late fees will add up. If the incapacity persists, the consequences can be much more serious.

What Authority Does the Appointed Agent Have with a Financial Power of Attorney?

A financial power of attorney will typically grant the appointed agent authority to conduct normal business, such as depositing funds to your accounts, paying bills, accessing safe deposit boxes, and selling property. You may also choose to grant certain other powers. 

The authority is relatively broad because in the case of a long-term or permanent incapacity, the agent may be required to take significant action. For example, if a person becomes permanently incapacitated and is moved into a long-term care facility, it may be necessary to sell the incapacitated person’s home or other property.

It’s important to choose your agent carefully. Of course, you’ll want to name someone you trust. But, you should also consider the agent’s aptitude for managing your financial affairs, particularly if you have significant assets.

When Does a Durable Power of Attorney for Finances Take Effect?

Under Washington law, a power of attorney takes effect as soon as it is executed, unless the document explicitly contains a triggering event or specific effective date. Most often, a financial power of attorney in Washington will include a provision that says it takes effect upon incapacity. That means your appointed agent won’t have the authority to take financial actions on your behalf as long as you are capable of making those decisions on your own. Instead, that authority kicks in if you’re incapacitated. 

Which type best suits your needs depends on your circumstances. Most people who are fully managing their own affairs prefer that a financial power of attorney take effect if and when they become incapacitated. However, in some circumstances, it may be beneficial to have a power of attorney take effect right away. One common example is when an aging parent grants a power of attorney to an adult child so the child can help manage the parent’s affairs. Another might be a married couple in which one partner is traveling outside the country, or is otherwise expected to be unavailable for a time. Your estate planning attorney can explain the risks and benefits of each approach and help determine which is most appropriate for your situation.

What is a Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care?

A health care power of attorney is a legal document that appoints a health care agent to make medical decisions for you if you are unable to make those decisions on your own. This includes both temporary and long-term situations. 

For instance, the person you’ve appointed would be the person who could authorize a surgical procedure while you were unconscious after an automobile accident. In this situation, decision-making would typically revert to you as soon as you were conscious and mentally capable of making your own decisions again. That person would also step into your shoes to make medical decisions if you were incapacitated in the long-term through a condition such as Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. 

What Happens if You Don’t Appoint a Health Care Agent?

Washington State law creates a hierarchy. When someone who isn’t under guardianship and hasn’t appointed a health care agent becomes incapacitated, decision-making authority falls to:

  • First, the spouse or state-registered domestic partner
  • Second, children of the patient who are at least 18 years old
  • Third, parents of the patient
  • Fourth, adult siblings of the patient

While this looks straightforward, it can create complications and conflicts that increase stress on the family during an already-difficult time. For instance, an 18-year-old college freshman who has just lost one parent in a car accident may be called upon to make critical medical decisions for the surviving parent. Or, a group of three or four adult children or siblings of the patient with equal decision-making authority under the law may be unable to agree on the best course of treatment.

The best way to ensure that decisions are made in accordance with your wishes and to spare your family conflict and confusion in a critical moment is to make your wishes known in advance. That means creating an advance health care directive and appointing a health care agent while you are healthy.

Why Do I Need a Health Care Representative if I Have an Advance Directive?

Advance health care directives give your medical care providers instructions for specific types of decisions, such as whether you want your life artificially prolonged in the event of a terminal, irreversible condition. It would be impossible to anticipate and pre-judge every medical decision that might arise and include it in an advance health care directive. 

An advance health care directive and a durable power of attorney for healthcare work hand in hand to ensure that your wishes are carried out with regard to a handful of critical decisions, while putting less predictable issues in the hands of a trusted friend or family member.

Harbor Law Firm is prepared to help you craft an effective strategy in regards to your powers of attorney. While we strongly believe that you need durable powers of attorney for your finances and health care, there is a good chance that you need others. 

Work With an Experienced Wills and Estates Lawyer

When you’re planning for the future security of your family, it’s in your best interests to have knowledgeable guidance every step of the way. That guidance doesn’t have to be painful or prohibitively expensive. 

At Harbor Law Firm, we make estate planning as simple and stress-free as possible. That means: 

  • Knowledgeable guidance customized to your circumstances and your goals
  • A fully remote process that never requires you to leave home
  • Early morning, evening, and weekend hours to fit your schedule
  • An adaptable process for exchanging documents and collaborating
  • Flat-rate pricing that ensures you’ll never be surprised by a legal bill

We also offer free consultations and can speak with you outside regular business hours. For more on our remote estate planning process, visit this page on our website. Set up a free initial consultation here.