- A power of attorney, or POA, is a legal document that allows you to give someone else the authority to make decisions on your behalf.
- Using an attorney to craft your POA can cost you more than $300. Using an online service like LegalZoom can be a more affordable option starting at just $35.
- A durable POA is effective from the moment you sign it and does not expire; a non-durable POA is only effective for a limited period of time; and a springing POA will not become effective until you’re declared incapacitated.
- You can create a limited POA that only applies to certain types of decisions, such as medical care or finances.
Powers of attorney are an extremely useful tool in estate planning. They can be used to help you make many types of decisions—buying a car, choosing an insurance provider, or even paying your bills. Having a POA in place will ensure you have a trusted person to act for you when you can’t.
This article will explain what is a POA, what it can and can’t do for you, and how you can get one.
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“Power of attorney” meaning
A power of attorney is a legally binding document—not an individual—that allows you to appoint someone to manage your real property (real estate), personal property, or medical or financial affairs for you, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.1 In other words, it gives someone else the authority to make the decisions you would normally make, in the event you can no longer make them.
The person creating the POA is called the “principal.” The person being appointed with decision-making power is called an “agent.”
POAs are typically used by those who cannot manage their affairs, either due to mental incapacity or physical absence. This may be short-term (for example, due to illness or travel) or long-term (like with a severe brain injury or a coma), depending on the type of POA.
In the legal sense, someone is considered incapacitated if they lack the ability to make rational decisions according to the Legal Information Institute of Cornell Law School.2 This can be due to an illness, declined mental state, a disability, or simply being away for an extended period of time.
What does a power of attorney do?
A POA allows you to grant someone, also known as an agent, the authority to make your decisions for you.
A POA creates a “fiduciary relationship” between you and your agent. A fiduciary relationship is when one person is legally obligated to act in the best interests of another person. That means they’re responsible for making decisions for you, in the way you would want those decisions to be made.
Who needs a power of attorney?
POAs are typically set up for older adults engaged in the estate planning process. They are commonly included in estate planning bundles, so if you don’t yet have a will, you can get both of these documents at the same time.
If you want to create a power of attorney for a parent or loved one, you’ll want to do it as soon as possible. Once that person is declared incapacitated, they won’t be able to create a power of attorney. Instead, a judge will have to formally appoint a guardian to care for them.
Power of attorney limitations
You can set a limitation on either the scope or duration of the agent’s authority when you create a POA.
For example, a springing POA is limited because it won’t take effect unless you become incapacitated. A non-durable POA is limited by placing an expiration date on your agent’s authority. A financial POA limits the agent’s scope of authority to only financial decisions. No matter what type of POA you create, the agent’s authority will expire once you die.
Though your agent has complete decision-making authority over the affairs included in your POA, they are still required to act in your best interest.
For example, your agent will never be able to:
- Write your will or change it
- Transfer funds from your bank account to their own (without your consent)
- Make decisions after your death (unless they’re appointed to do so in your will)
- Transfer the POA power to someone else without your consent
Risks of a power of attorney
The main risk of having a power of attorney is your agent may make the wrong decisions on your behalf. Make sure your agent understands exactly what your wishes are and why they are important to you.
In rare cases, a POA can be abused by an agent who tries to take advantage of their power over your affairs, which is a crime, according to the National Center on Elder Abuse.3 That’s why it’s so important to choose an agent you completely trust to act responsibly.
To minimize this risk, you can craft a POA that includes certain safeguards such as:
- Naming multiple agents to act jointly
- Naming multiple agents to be responsible for particular decisions
- Naming a successor agent in case your initial agent passes away or otherwise can’t perform the responsibilities you’ve granted them
- Requiring the agent to approve decisions with a trusted probate attorney or accountant
How to set up a power of attorney
A POA is available in every state, but the requirements for creating and maintaining one will vary depending on where you live. Below is a step-by-step guide to help you navigate the POA process.
Step 1: Select an agent
Selecting an agent, also known as an attorney-in-fact, is one of the most essential steps in setting up a POA. This person will be responsible for making important decisions in your life when you no longer can, so you have to trust they’ll act in your best interest and carry out your wishes faithfully.
Many people choose a family member as their agent, but that’s not always the best choice depending on your circumstances. If you don’t want to risk starting disputes among family members, you can name an honest, longtime friend as your agent.
If you want an agent who is completely neutral, familiar with fiduciary relationships, and especially skilled at managing someone else’s affairs, you can name a trusted professional as your agent for a fee. Attorneys and accountants are common choices for POA agents due to their expertise in handling complex affairs. For example, you might benefit from having a financial POA that names an accountant as the agent if you’re receiving IRS notices for an incomplete tax return or “failure to pay.”
Here are some characteristics you should look for in your agent:
- Trustworthiness. Your agent should be someone you trust to do what’s best for you and your assets.
- Attention to detail. Your agent should be meticulously organized so they can accurately manage your affairs.
- Availability. Your agent should be capable of taking on the management of another person’s finances (e.g., paying monthly bills on time) without being overwhelmed.
- Assertiveness. Your agent should be willing to make the final decision on an important matter in your best interest, even if the decision upsets someone else.
Step 2: Discuss expectations and responsibilities with your agent
Once you’ve chosen the person you want to manage your affairs, you need to make sure they’re up for the job. This is vital to ensure your agent will make decisions that meet your expectations.
Be sure to discuss in this meeting:
- What a power of attorney document is
- The responsibilities they would have as your agent
- The time commitment required
- What you want them to keep in mind when making decisions for you
- Whether they think they can fulfill their duties while grieving
- Whether they’re comfortable making final decisions on disputed matters
- Whether they consent to being your agent
- Any other questions or concerns they may have
Step 3: Choose the right type of power of attorney
Not all POAs achieve the same outcome. You’ll want to choose the right type of POA based on your needs. To do this, you’ll need to make a duration distinction and a scope distinction.
Distinguish by duration
First, decide when you want your POA to go into effect:
- Want it to be permanently effective from the moment you sign it? Create a durable POA.
- Want it to be effective for only a limited period of time? Create a non-durable POA.
- Want it to not go into effect until you’re declared incapacitated? Create a springing POA.
Distinguish by scope of authority
Next, determine the scope of your agent’s authority:
- Want an agent to have authority over anything you’d normally have authority over? Create a general POA.
- Want an agent to manage only your health care decisions? Create a medical POA.
- Want an agent to manage only your finances? Create a financial POA.
Once you’ve decided on the duration and scope of the authority you’ll be delegating to your agent, you can choose the type of POA you want using Table 1 below.
For example, if you want to delegate all your decision-making authority while you’re out of the country for one year to a POA , you’ll need a non-durable general POA. If you want a POA to have authority over your financial decisions if you ever become incapacitated, you’ll need a springing financial POA. Or, if you want a POA that goes into effect immediately and gives authority over any medical decisions for the rest of your life, you’ll need a durable medical POA.
Combining these two distinctions, scope and duration, will give your agent helpful information regarding their powers.
Table 1 POA classifications
Step 4: Draft the document
When it comes to drafting the POA document, you have some options. You have free options, such as finding free templates online, but you’ll have to input all the required information into a website without any guidance. This runs the risk of you incorrectly filling out the form and not creating the POA you intended to create.
If you want to ensure your POA does exactly what you want it to do, you can purchase an online service to create your POA for you. These services, such as LegalZoom, typically cost around $35–$45. All you’ll have to do is answer a simple questionnaire, which should take around 10–15 minutes to complete.
To answer the questionnaire, you’ll need the contact information for you and your agent (including name, phone number, address, etc.). The rest of the questions will be about what you want your POA to accomplish. Once you’ve finished the questionnaire, the service will generate a completed POA for you to print. If you don’t have a printer, you can usually use one at a local library or school. Some business centers (like UPS or FedEx) will provide printing services as well. Or, you can ask a friend or family member to print it out for you
The most expensive option is hiring a probate attorney to draft your POA. A probate attorney is a type of lawyer specializing in wills, trusts, and estate planning. Probate attorneys will typically charge a flat fee of around $200 to draft a POA for someone. So, unless you plan to have a highly complicated POA, hiring an attorney to draft the document is usually unnecessary since there are more affordable options.
Regardless of the method you choose, or which state you live in, your POA document should include the following:
- The type of POA it is
- The date you created the POA
- The start date and expiration date (if applicable)
- Your name
- The agent’s name
- The scope of the agent’s authority
- A clause detailing your wishes
Step 5: Execute the document
Executing a document means to make it valid and legally binding. The exact requirements for executing a POA will depend on your state’s laws.
The document should be signed by both you and your agent, showing you consent to allowing your agent to make decisions on your behalf and the agent consents to taking on the duties of making such decisions. Depending on the state you live in, you and your agent may need to sign the document in front of witnesses or a notary public for it to be valid. The requirements for each state are listed below:
Table 2 POA signature requirements by state
|Two witnesses and a notary||Florida, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina|
|Two witnesses or a notary||Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Dakota, Ohio, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, Wyoming|
|At least two witnesses||Alabama, Connecticut, Delaware, D.C., Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New York, Oregon, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin|
|One witness and a notary||Maryland|
|Only a notary||Colorado, New Mexico|
|Only one witness||Utah|
Source: American College of Trust and Estate Counsel.4
Step 6: Maintain and update the document as needed
Once your POA is legally binding, you will need to stow it away for safekeeping. We recommend you keep the original in a fireproof lockbox at home (like this one for $30) or a safe deposit box at the bank where you, your agent, and your loved ones can access the document if you ever need to update it or refer back to it. It’s also a good idea you make copies of the document and share them with your agent, your attorney, and anyone else you think should have access to it.
Distinguishing different POAs
Powers of attorney are distinguished by both the duration they’re effective and the scope of authority that’s being granted. The duration distinctions are: durable, non-durable, and springing. The scope distinctions can either be general or limited. Limited POAs can be further classified based on what the scope is limited to. For example, a medical POA is a type of limited POA that only delegates authority over medical decisions. Or, a financial POA is a type of limited POA that only delegates authority over financial decisions. Each type can be useful depending on your needs.
You can classify a POA based on the duration of its effectiveness. In other words, the duration distinction will tell you when an agent has authority, and when the agent’s authority ends. All POA’s expire upon the principal’s death, but some POA’s will expire sooner. Similarly, while some POAs delegate authority to the agent immediately, others may not go into effect until something happens.
A durable POA becomes effective the moment it’s signed and will remain effective even after you’ve been declared incapacitated.
|ⓘ||Example: Abe was recently diagnosed with an incurable brain disease. Abe got a general durable POA to appoint his wife, Carol, to manage his finances while he’s being treated in the hospital. One day, Abe’s health takes a turn for the worse and he slips into a coma—rendering him legally incapacitated. Since Abe’s POA is durable, Carol can continue acting on Abe’s behalf.|
A non-durable POA will allow you to delegate decision-making responsibility to an agent for a limited period of time. You can specify the point at which your non-durable POA ceases to be effective in the document. It may be when you die, at the end of a time limit, at the occurrence of an event, or even just when you decide to revoke the privilege.
|ⓘ||Example: Abe is a business owner who needs to leave the country for six months. Abe can create a non-durable financial POA to appoint Bob with the authority to make decisions on behalf of the company while Abe is away. Once Abe returns, the POA will expire. Abe can resume running his business, and Bob will no longer have any authority over the company.|
A springing POA won’t be legally effective until an event specified in the document occurs—usually when someone is declared mentally incompetent or physically disabled. Think of it like a superhero who springs into action when you’re either physically or mentally unable to make decisions for yourself.
|ⓘ||Example: Abe created a springing medical POA 15 years ago that delegates his health care decisions to Bob if Abe is ever declared incompetent. Abe is injured at work one day and develops severe brain damage. The springing POA becomes legally effective on that day, and Bob (as the appointed agent) is now responsible for decisions regarding Abe’s medical care.|
The other way a POA is classified is based on the scope of authority given to the agent. To put it simply, a POA will either grant general authority or limited authority to someone.
A general POA grants an agent broad authority to make any decisions or take any legal actions on behalf of the principal.
|ⓘ||Example: Abe has a general springing POA that names his wife, Carol, as his agent if he were to become incapacitated. So, if Abe gets injured and develops severe brain damage, Carol will have the authority to decide both how Abe is to be cared for and how his finances will be managed.|
You can use a limited POA to restrict the scope of your agents to certain types of affairs. Most often, this is seen as either a medical POA or a financial POA. This allows you to split the responsibility over your affairs among multiple agents based on their strengths.
|ⓘ||Example: Abe has two kids, Debbie and Eric. Debbie is a doctor, and Eric is an accountant. Rather than appointing Debbie as his sole agent and risk upsetting Eric, Abe could have two limited POAs. He can set up a medical POA delegating his health care decisions to Debbie and a financial POA delegating his financial decisions to Eric.|
A medical POA, also known as a health care power of attorney, is a limited power of attorney that appoints an agent to make health care decisions on your behalf.
The duties of the agent of a medical POA can include:
- General medical care decisions (e.g., elective surgeries, treatments, etc.)
- Your insurance providers
- Which long-term care facilities you’ll be placed in
- Withdrawal from life-saving measures
- End of life care options
- Donation of organs
- Authorization for autopsy
A financial POA is another type of limited power of attorney that grants an agent authority over your financial matters.
The duties of the agent of a financial POA can include:
- Paying bills
- Opening and closing bank accounts
- Managing investment portfolios
- Engaging in financial transactions
Additional free or affordable estate planning resources
Learning about estate planning tools like the power of attorney can be intimidating, but it’s an important part of safeguarding your affairs. For more resources on how to begin preparing for your future, check out NCOA’s Age Well Planner. If you’re taking care of a loved one, read our advice about managing someone else’s legal, financial and medical decisions. And be aware of estate recovery, how it works, and how it can affect your or a loved one.
There are plenty of resources offering affordable legal aid. There are also non-profit organizations, such as the Veteran Legal Institute, that will provide free legal assistance to current and former service members.
Important terms to know
As you learn how to create a power of attorney, it may be helpful to know what certain legal terms mean:
- The agent, also known as the “attorney-in-fact,” is the person appointed to make decisions on another’s behalf.
- The principal is the person who delegates decision-making authority to someone else.
- An estate is all the assets, including real estate and personal property, that someone owns at the time of their death.
- Authority is legal permission to act on another’s behalf. A power of attorney allows you to grant someone else legal permission to act for you if you’re ever unable to make decisions on your own.
- Execution, in the legal sense, means signing something to make it legally binding. To make a power of attorney official, it must be signed by the principal, the agent, and witnesses. This is done to prove the document’s authenticity and accuracy.
The bottom line
A power of attorney is an important part of any estate plan. It allows you to appoint someone—who you trust will honor your wishes—to make decisions on your behalf.
When creating your POA, you’ll choose when your agent’s authority begins and ends, and what the agent has authority over. You can create a POA that delegates authority over your finances, your health care, or both. You can have a POA that becomes effective immediately, one that doesn’t take effect until you’re declared incapacitated, or one that’s only effective for a predetermined amount of time. It all depends on what’s best for your situation.
If you’re ready to create your POA, you can use an online service to generate the document for you. This way, you don’t have to worry about writing out the document yourself or paying expensive attorney’s fees. Once the document’s been created and executed according to your state’s requirements, keep it safe with your other important life planning documents.
Frequently asked questions
Have questions about this review? Email us at email@example.com
- Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. What Is a Power of Attorney? Aug. 5, 2016. Found on the internet at https://www.consumerfinance.gov/ask-cfpb/what-is-a-power-of-attorney-poa-en-1149/
- Legal Information Institute of Cornell Law School. Definition of incapacity. June 2022. Found on the internet at https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/incapacity
- Lori A. Stiegel, JD. Durable Power of Attorney Abuse: It’s a Crime Too. National Center on Elder Abuse. 2008. Found on the internet at https://ncea.acl.gov/NCEA/media/docs/Durable-PofA-Abuse-FactSheet-Criminal-Justice-Professionals.pd
- W. Birch Douglass III, et. al. 50 State (Plus D.C.) Survey of Powers of Attorney. American College of Trust and Estate Counsel. August 2019. Found on the internet at https://www.actec.org/assets/1/6/Douglass_Powers_of_Attorney_Survey.pdf?hssc=1
- Department of Justice Elder Justice Initiative. Identifying and Prosecuting Power of Attorney Abuse Nov. 18, 2021. Found on the internet at https://www.justice.gov/file/1453376/download