Powers of Attorney - Keep the Power, Don't Give it All Away

It is a wonderful feeling to know that someone has your back if you're not around. The people you trust the most are usually the ones you know will have your back. These are the people you ask to step in for you when you need it most.

I know that I can count on my wife to make decisions for me if I am not available to do so. If a bill needs to be paid or something needs to be sold while I am away for work or military duty, she will make sure it is taken care of. (She's pretty fantastic like that.) But who does it if she is away, or if we are away together? More importantly, could they even make those important decisions for me or us?

Power of Attorney

Most people have at least heard of granting someone the "power of attorney" to make decisions on their behalf. Simply put, a person to whom you grant power of attorney can make the same decisions you could make for yourself. He or she can sign your name to a legal document and effectively act as you. It is like creating a legally-recognized clone of yourself! (We'll call them your agent). Needless to say, that is a lot of power to grant a person.

But if you remember one thing from this article, remember this: a power of attorney does not have to be all or nothing. You can grant as little or as much power to your agent as you want. And the best rule of thumb is to grant as little as is necessary to get the job done in your absence.

Types of Power of Attorney

Powers of attorney can be granted for as many situations as you can imagine. In general, they are defined by two criteria: time and scope. Just as I mention above, it is best to limit the time you grant to a person and the scope of what they can do. What follows is a beginning discussion on powers of attorney. Please keep in mind that this is just a starting point and is not exhaustive.

  • Durable vs. Non-Durable: These are legal terms relating to the time and scope you are granting a person.  The non-durable power of attorney is used only for a set period of time and usually for a particular transaction in which you grant your agent authority to act on your behalf. The durable power of attorney does not have a set time period while a person is alive. It grants your agent much more authority and only expires upon your death, or if you revoke it.
  • Limited: The limited power of attorney is just that, limited to the restrictions you place on it. A limited power of attorney is by definition non-durable; most often it is used to complete a transaction (like the sale of a home) while you are away or have a prior commitment. This should be the most common form of power of attorney - it is meant to allow you to accomplish a needed task while you are away, while retaining all of the power to make any other decision for yourself
  • Springing: A springing power of attorney is meant to be effective only if some future event occurs. Think of it as "springing to life" if that event happens. This type of power of attorney can be durable or non-durable, granting powers a limited or as encompassing as you like. The most common event for a springing power of attorney is incapacity. These are commonly used as estate planning tools.
  • Medical and Financial:  Common usages of springing powers of attorney are for medical and financial decisions to be made in the event of incapacity. Simply put, you grant someone the power make your medical decisions according to your wishes and appoint someone the power to control your finances if you are deemed unable by healthcare providers. These uses are important life planning tools - everyone should have them appointed.

Again, your best bet is to only grant as much power to your agent as is necessary. Remember, "absolute power corrupts absolutely." Granting a power of attorney is a wonderful tool to help you make decisions in your absence and maintain control of your future. Just make sure the document drafted to grant this power is specifically tailored to the decisions you are making.


Andrew Wright is a Michigan-licensed attorney who specializes in estate and life planning for families. Learn more about him here.