Should I accept power of attorney for my parents?
March 8, 2015 11:09 PM   Subscribe

My parents are in their early 70s and have minor health issues, but are generally doing well and definitely of sound mind. They have lately been planning for the future: consulting an elder care attorney, signing up for long term health care, etc. They have asked me to be their health care proxy and executor (along with another of my siblings), which I'm willing to do since I feel confident that I understand their wishes. However, they also asked me to take on durable power of attorney which I feel less comfortable with.

Their lawyer counseled them to set up a power of attorney in case they need a financial/legal proxy if one of them is out of the country, or otherwise incapacitated. But to me it feels like a lot of power. They and I are financially comfortable, so I'm not convinced that there's a need for this on the money side. They both have a family history of Alzheimers or dementia, so it may just be looking ahead. However, while the last thing I want to do is take advantage of their trust, I can't help imagining situations where I might disagree with future choices they make, and then be tempted to abuse my powers.

While I will consult an attorney, I'm more interested in hearing opinions or anecdotes: have you used your power of attorney while the person who gave it to you was still capable? Was it useful/valuable? Is it reasonable to put this off until they get older, or is it the kind of thing that you don't know you need until it's too late? Your thoughts are appreciated.
posted by ungratefulninja to Human Relations (23 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
while the last thing I want to do is take advantage of their trust, I can't help imagining situations where I might disagree with future choices they make, and then be tempted to abuse my powers.

the first thing I'd look for in someone to whom I was granting power of attorney is someone who wouldn't take advantage of my trust. That's the whole point. Please do disagree with future demented me.
posted by philip-random at 11:23 PM on March 8, 2015 [8 favorites]

is it the kind of thing that you don't know you need until it's too late

Yeah, and early 70s is when stuff happens fast. And it sucks when something happens fast and somebody needs to get at money for handling whatever it is that happened and can't.

Anecdata: my grandfather declined quickly and simply required a lot of hands-on care, and he'd always been the financial manager. They were very organized, so my grandmother had access to everything, but she didn't understand it all because of technology and not being the one who dealt with it, but also because she was exhausted and scared. My mom (who had PoA) spent a lot of time on the phone doing things that required that authority. My grandmother could not have handled all that alone.

And when she declined, she went quickly as well, and my mom had a beast of a time navigating The System for the simplest things - so many things we hadn't run into when my grandfather died cropped up 3 years later when she was dying.

I've watched several of my peers deal with parental dementia in the past couple of years, and you just don't want to get caught out. Do have the hard conversations about what they want to do in various scenarios NOW, and decide what to do about those disagreements. God, there were so many things we all regret acquiescing to with my grandfather, because everybody was afraid of him (except for me, but I didn't really get a vote on that one) and we were confused and intimidated by the system. The experience left my mother with a sort of "nuke us from orbit, it's the only way to be sure" attitude, and so we are well agreed on what won't happen when the time comes, and hopefully you can reach the same sort of peace with your parents so that you don't feel like decision-making is going to be some sort of abuse of power down the line.

My parents have actually had all the relevant paperwork in place for a good 15 years now. When I was a kid, our neighbor across the street had her parents - in their late 50s - visiting when they got T-boned in an intersection and were never able to go home again. They were so woefully underprepared, it kind of scarred us all. At least once a year my mother reminds me where the a) paperwork, b) good jewelry, c) guns are, so I can deal with each as is necessary.
posted by Lyn Never at 11:32 PM on March 8, 2015 [3 favorites]

Best answer: My sister and I had to deal with aspects of this during the last 10 years, as first my mom, and then my dad passed on.

For sure, talk to a lawyer, make sure it's all good in your own mind. But I think really the questions you want to ask yourself are: do you love your parents? Do you want what is best for them? Do you want to help them successfully complete the final chapters of their lives? If the answer is "yes", then go ahead and do it. I'm sure they'll be happy and proud that you'll accept the responsibility. And you should be proud that they trust you and want you to do this for them.
posted by doctor tough love at 11:43 PM on March 8, 2015 [3 favorites]

Best answer: If there is someone else (a sibling, perhaps) who you believe would do a better job than you, then maybe nominate them - but bear in mind that this kind of role takes mental rigour as well as compassion, and discernment as well as generosity. And of course, I'm assuming that this sainted person is both willing and able to take up this role, should the need arise. But if your question is whether having no POA is better for your parents than having you as their POA, I strongly suspect it is not. By the time you know you need one it will be too late to get one, in many cases.
posted by Cheese Monster at 12:07 AM on March 9, 2015 [3 favorites]

If it really concerns you, discuss the possibility of a springing -- that is, determined by events, triggered -- power of attorney.

Also be aware that the POA can be very detailed and explicit about which things you have control over. It doesn't have to just be a general boilerplate.

I would also very much consider working with an elder law attorney and financial planner to set up joint ownership where possible and beneficiary arrangements where appropriate (but of course, that is something that might not be activated until one or both parents pass away, and you are talking about making decisions while they are still living).

But to me it feels like a lot of power.

In a way, it is. But the alternative is powerlessness as things happen that are out of your reach or control.
posted by dhartung at 12:31 AM on March 9, 2015 [5 favorites]

There are a lot of good pieces of advice on this post. I have experience on both ends of this. I have lived a large part of my adult life abroad, and often in countries where I haven't been able to access my funds, especially once during an emergency. My mom and I have always had a trustful relationship, and we both have our own money so there is no reason to even think about abusing it, even if one of us wanted to. I gave my mom access to all my banking and she is able to make deposits, withdrawals, etc., freely. She jokes that now she's "rich" and she'll run away to some tropical island, but the irony is that she has exponentially more than I do. Now the tables are turned, my mom is 67 and facing illness. I now have similar power on her accounts in the event something happens and she is not able to make decisions. I am not American (I assumeded this is where you are from?) so I do not know the legal technicalities on these things and if they differ. However, to be honest, I didn't really think twice about this. It was an automatic "yep, where do I sign?". I hope I'll never have to *use* it, but between me and my brother, I consider myself the more responsible and honest sibling so I'm happy to be trustworthy in her eyes (and mine!). I can't imagine, considering that you are even asking this question, that you would somehow be tempted to abuse your power. I suppose if you are, go back and reread this post!

And I'd say: the earlier, the better. Communication with your parents is key, especially about life, illness, death, expectations. Play out scenarious with them "Mom, if ____ happens, what do you want me to do? Dad, what should I do if ______ happens?" etc. Record your conversations if it helps you. Once done, you might feel relieved. Then, it's out of the way, and I bet it will be largely forgotten. You might not even think about it until, (if) one day, you need to use it.

Good luck to you all.
posted by stumblingthroughitall at 1:57 AM on March 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: have you used your power of attorney while the person who gave it to you was still capable? Was it useful/valuable?

Yes, for a person very used to being in control of things, who with time has become increasingly comfortable with working together to manage their needs, and is relieved to not have to worry about difficult transactions. It's taken a load off them. We would not have been able to act on their behalf without PoA.

Is it reasonable to put this off until they get older, or is it the kind of thing that you don't know you need until it's too late?

No, do it now, while you have a way of finding out what they want and believe. Don't forget that you'll have that knowledge to guide you, as well as the advice and support of legal and medical professionals, if it comes to it. Is it partly that you disagree with views your parents currently hold about end-of-life issues?
posted by cotton dress sock at 2:35 AM on March 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Wow, thanks for all these thoughtful answers, I really appreciate it. I would trust any of my siblings to take this responsibility, and I think my parents would too. I'm the oldest, the most financially stable at the moment, and have the most flexible work among us, so that might have factored in to their asking me. But I do very much appreciate the trust they are placing in me and I want to be worthy of it.

I don't have any disagreements with my parents' choices about end of life care. But I'm imagining less drastic scenarios. One of my grandmothers lived alone and was driving up until she was 90, but then declined very quickly into dementia. She only lost her license after being pulled over multiple times for erratic driving. What if I had had the power to take away her car or license? Ultimately I guess these are questions I need to ask my parents, for my own peace of mind.
posted by ungratefulninja at 3:09 AM on March 9, 2015

I have power of attorney as does my sister for our parents. My sister has used it to help my parents with their accounts.

I'm really glad we got it at the instigation of my father who was a lawyer. My parents are in their mid 70s.

We got it several years ago and haven't used it. However, my father has vascular dementia and I'm very glad that we have it. He is no longer able to handle his affairs and trying to get power of attorney at this stage would be difficult.

I'm glad I have it with my sister. Together we can discuss things with my mother and we can work things through. I'd recommend getting it with other siblings provided you're lucky enough to have siblings you trust.
posted by sien at 3:54 AM on March 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

Oof, yeah, driving's a hard one.

It's bumpy. Things happen - events; maybe-symptoms, maybe not. You're not always sure what they mean, vs. what you want or hope for them to mean. Sometimes other people recognize changes before you do. The best thing is for your parents to have or develop a good relationship with their doctor/s now. (I imagine they might; they sound well-prepared.) With us, slowly (even before the PoA), we* wound up going along to appointments and being included in discussions about health. The doctor's the one to make the call about driving (unless something unlucky happens to force the question; also, medical tests for driving, specifically, are mandatory after a certain age - 80, where I am). It might also be helpful to have occasional input from friends of your parents who know them very well, because it's true, love can be blind.

(*well, I; this is sort of more my side of things; it's my sibs and I that jointly [and severally - important] have PoA.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 3:57 AM on March 9, 2015

My dad had a stroke and was in a coma, and I had no power of attorney but still had to pay his rent and utilities, so it came out of my much shallower pocket and I couldn't file his taxes when they came due. It was awful. Accept the responsibility and just don't use it unless you have to. Talk to your parents about how they want you to decide when they need to stop driving - but this isn't covered under the durable financial power of attorney. I'm not sure you can make the decision legally -it's usually up to the DMV with input from family and physicians.
To become guardian, which is where the real responsibility lies, you have to go to court anyway.
posted by gingerest at 4:05 AM on March 9, 2015

My grandmother didn't get it for my grandfather until it was too late and it made things much harder on her than they needed to be.

Driving goes through the doctor, usually. And many locations do automatic reviews as you get older.
posted by jeather at 6:10 AM on March 9, 2015

I know you've had your answer. Just will add in my experience.

My parents are in their early 70's and in good health. They gave me a POA about ten years ago. I found it super odd and intimidating when they approached me and had many of the same sorts of feelings.

It is a huge amount of trust and responsibility placed on me. I came to understand why they wanted it. It is simply for their piece of mind that someone else, who they trust and love is there to help if things go bad and one or the other needs help coping with things that need to be done. It's not just about health decisions but for me to easily be able to look after financial affairs if say my Dad is ill and Mom is dealing with that.

Mom got the idea because of what happened when my Grandma was ill. Grandpa became overwhelmed with it all and ended up falling behind on bills and such which added more stress. My Aunt ended up having to step in a sort it all out. She then just looked after that part of Grandpas affairs and Grandpa just focused on Grandma.

The POA has never been used. It just sits in the file cabinet. It's something I hope will never have to be used but they're right. It is a comfort to me as well now that if something bad happens I can easily step in to help look after things without a whole lot of fuss.
posted by Jalliah at 6:14 AM on March 9, 2015

Best answer: I had power of attorney for my parents and it made things SO much easier with regard to stuff like paying bills, getting my dad set up in a care home after he broke his hip, paying taxes, and, later, settling the estate after my dad died. If you and/or siblings don't have POA it is going to make all that stuff so much harder.

With regard to being "tempted" by POA: you are not being tempted to disregard your parents' wishes for health care nor are you tempted to get them to sign over the house to you or anything else nefarious! You want them to not drive if they are endangering themselves and others - which is a GOOD thing. My mom wanted to drive even after she was on hospice care (!!!) - and to make things worse, she lived a few blocks from an elementary school. Luckily, she saw sense and let me chauffeur her around. Sad to say, her doctor and the overburdened hospice social worker were not a help in that regard, even though she lived in a state where doctors are mandated to report potentially unsafe drivers to the DMV. Some doctors will intervene with unsafe elderly drivers and some enable their patients like crazy. If you feel a parent can't safely drive, and their doctor is no help, make a report to your local DMV (you can do this anonymously); as a last resort you can consult an elder law attorney.

Get that power of attorney; Power of Attorney doesn't mean you can just step in and take away a license or compel your parent to do something they do not want to do - it's not guardianship. It just means you can act if your parent cannot - you can convey their healthcare wishes to medical personnel, you can pay their bills if they can't, etc. If one of your siblings can be your backup, so much the better.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 6:45 AM on March 9, 2015 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Mrs mule98j and I had a similar experience with her father. Although our experience with Senior is unique to us, I assume we faced similar issues you seem to be thinking about. The responsibility seemed enormous when we first took it on. But as time passed we grew accustomed to this new turn in our relationship with Senior. Mrs mule98j needed to sign certain of the medical procedures for him, as well as handle his assets. Both these tasks were made simple by having the proper legal instruments in place well before they were needed.

It seems to me your parents have made a good choice in asking you to be their go to person in this regard. I can't think of much that would be more fulfilling, or fitting, than to be able to help a parent in this manner.
posted by mule98J at 7:38 AM on March 9, 2015

Your parents have an attorney that they use, so, go with them to talk to the attorney and ask him what responsibilities lie with the POA. He/she can talk about possible avenues to handle things. You'll feel a lot better about what you'll need to do once you're armed with knowledge. This way you can help your parents and understand what's what. Make sure once you have POA that you keep records of any transactions you do with their assets. Find out just how involved they want you to be - do they want you to just be able to write a check from their account if needed, or do they want full help managing their accounts down the line? I have not had POA but two family members have for various relatives and the amount of involvement varies.
posted by azpenguin at 7:45 AM on March 9, 2015

Best answer: I have done both (PoA and also the proxy/guardian side) and had to use them and I have to say that you and your family are both lucky and prudential. Your parents instigating this and your siblings on board, that's really great and will make things better in the future. However, and my experience is with dementia/Alzheimer disease, things can still be really hard.

have you used your power of attorney while the person who gave it to you was still capable? Was it useful/valuable?

Yes, I did and Yes it was. The thing is, no person with Alzheimer is the same as the next. In my case, the Parent was capable in some ways, but not in other things. And not always in the way you would expect. So you act accordingly. Some things we would let them decide because they could and sometimes we would maybe not even tell them they had a choice. And that would shift in time. We had, even in a later stage, still periods when the Parent was very alert and clear, and could decide (some) things.

I'm sort of used to think things through very carefully and I still found it hard. Even though I was the proxy (and/or guardian, or whatever it's called) I would consult my siblings. We had discussions on what we thought our Parent would have wanted. We would not always agree on that, so I had to choose (I may think I'm right, but sibling has other information, etc.) this was in a situation where siblings are usually in agreement, I am so grateful for that.

This demands a really delicate balancing of autonomy vs limitations and input from different directions on what's best for them. And this is really hard (on top of, you know, the disease thing). And so it should be, i.m.o.
The fact that you're already questioning yourself on your capability makes you a good candidate to do this, in my eyes. You are weighing things and take things in consideration. You do not take this lightly.
And it's much harder to stand by and watch and nót be able to do things you want for them, than the reverse.

We also shared responsibilty between siblings. I think we had shared PoA, and the sibling who was most capable and had more time/energy/accessibility, would do whatever they could do best.
We also had open communication between each other. Decisions, questions, changes would all be shared between us and the sibling who did finances even made an annual review.
And even though only one (or maybe two) of us had actual PoA, other siblings would do what they could. It's not a 'now you have to do everything by yourself and all alone' thing. You have to have support and take care of you.

Is it reasonable to put this off until they get older, or is it the kind of thing that you don't know you need until it's too late?

Do not put this off. If something does happen, you'll have other things to worry about. And if you're dealing with something like Alzheimer, it can get really complicated. You don't want to have these conversations with an anxious or even suspicious Parent, trust me on this.
You might even consider to take things somewhat further and look at financial planning for example.
posted by oenzemain at 7:47 AM on March 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

My take on this is that your hesitation to accept the responsibility because of your concerns about how it might be misused make you a spectacularly good choice to be given the power. I am in the same position as you with regard to my parents, but I have never been faced with a situation where I was tempted to use the PoA. I tried to work through the driving scenario with my parents in the abstract and the best I got from them was that the reason they wanted me to have the responsibility was that they were confident I would do the right thing for them.
posted by Lame_username at 10:07 AM on March 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

This may be one of many situations where the person who is ambivalent is actually the right person to have the power. Fools may rush in where angels fear to tread, but notice that phrase doesn't say the angels don't tread, just that they fear to.
One thing to keep in mind is that as people get older they lose their skepticism about strangers. It is astonishing the number of solicitations for money that are sent to the elderly. Questionable charities, book clubs, political candidates, everything under the sun. It's not abuse to step in to prevent that junk.
posted by wnissen at 11:24 AM on March 9, 2015 [2 favorites]

I would trust any of my siblings to take this responsibility

Your parents can do POAs for them also, if they wish. You don't need to be the only person who has POA.
posted by yohko at 11:47 AM on March 9, 2015

Response by poster: Thanks again for these valuable thoughts. I want to mark them all as best answer! It's really helping me start to wrap my mind around this change in our relationship. I'm starting to reframe it as an opportunity to have these discussions with my parents and to give us all confidence that they will be well taken care of no matter what happens. With the hope that I will never need to use it.
posted by ungratefulninja at 12:36 PM on March 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

For the love of God, do NOT ask your parents to give more than one person a POA. That way lies conflict and drama and general nonsense. You don't want to have to deal with that on top of an already stressful situation.
posted by Tamanna at 12:49 PM on March 9, 2015

I had POA for my mother who had dementia. Good comments above, so I will just add a couple of specific "lessons learned."

1) The POA had a "trigger" that required a Board Certified Psychiatrist to declare her incompetent. That was a huge pain in the rear. Her regular GP and her Neurologist were happy to write letters (and that worked for most things) but because she wasn't under the care of a Psychiatrist, finding one who was willing to see her and evaluate her and write a letter was very difficult--I got lot's of "No, because Liability" kind of answers. Spent literally months to get that letter. The attorney we used has taken that out of his boilerplate now because a number of his clients ran into the same issue.

2) I had control of Mom's checking account (meaning I could write checks (I was on the signature card), had online access, could deal with the bank for her, etc.) but it was not a joint account. When she passed away unexpectedly that account (everything else was covered by a trust or other documents), had too high a balance and needed to go through probate (it was the account we paid for her very expensive care out of and I, in an over abundance of caution had put a year's worth of $$ in there). Mom passed away last May and we are still winding our way through the court. Fortunately neither my brother or I need the cash, but it is a pain, extra legal fees, extra court fees, extra paperwork, etc. all the things we intended to avoid with the trust.
posted by agatha_magatha at 1:37 PM on March 9, 2015 [2 favorites]

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