Whether you're like the woman who's trying to help her father age gracefully without any financial missteps or trying to ensure that your wishes are carried out if the unexpected happens to you, it's crucial that you have two durable powers of attorney (DPOA) in place—one for healthcare and one for financial matters.
A DPOA is a legal document in which you appoint someone, called an agent, to act on your behalf—typically a spouse, a life partner or a close family member. Unlike a standard power of attorney, which becomes null and void in the event you are too ill to make decisions for yourself, the durable clause of the DPOA guarantees that the agent can act on your behalf if you become incapacitated.
In the DPOA for healthcare (also known as a healthcare proxy or medical power of attorney), you can spell out whether you would want to be put on life support. The financial DPOA allows your agent to handle your money matters, and you can define how broad or narrow you want his or her rights to be. For example, you may only want your daughter to be able to sign checks on your behalf so she can handle the bills, but not to be able to sell and buy stocks in your investment portfolio.
If you have any reason to believe that other family members may argue with your agent, gather the calm and courage to bring together all the individuals involved and let them hear from you directly why you are making the choices you are. You might also include some language in your DPOA that explicitly gives the agent final say.
All this can be done with the help of a good attorney who specializes in estate planning. Ask friends and colleagues for referrals, or go to findlaw.com. This site has a search engine that allows you to look for lawyers in your area. As with all transactions like this, inquire about the cost before you sign on. An attorney should be able to quote you a flat fee for drawing up a simple DPOA, and it shouldn't cost you more than $200.
I know it's difficult to think about a time when you might not be able to care for yourself, but keep in mind how much easier it will be for your loved ones to handle your affairs for you, knowing they're doing exactly what you would have wanted.
From the October 2004 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine
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