What Is a Power Of Attorney?

By R. Kurtz (Kurt) Holloway

A Power of Attorney document is one in which you, the "Principal", appoints someone as your "Agent" to legally make financial or health care decisions, sign documents and transact business on your behalf. Once you have appointed your Agent, all actions he takes on your behalf have the same legal effect as if you did them yourself.

Is there more than one kind of Power of Attorney?
Yes. Basically, Pennsylvania recognizes three types of Powers of Attorney:

  1. General Power of Attorney
    This document grants very broad powers to your Agent and includes the authority to do anything and everything for you which you could do for yourself. The law in Pennsylvania is very restrictive, however, on the power to make gifts in order to prevent abuse.
  2. Limited Power of Attorney
    This document grants only certain powers to your Agent and is used most often for one specific task. For example, a Principal might grant a Limited Power of Attorney to an Agent to sign documents necessary to sell the Principal's house while he is out of town. This is often used by spouses when one spouse travels extensively.
  3. Health Care Power of Attorney
    This document, as the name implies, is restricted to issues concerning a Principal's health care. This document may authorize an Agent to obtain medical information about the Principal, make all types of health care decisions for the Principal. When a Health Care Power of Attorney is combined with directions for end of life decisions (known as a Living Will) and other health care decisions, it is sometimes referred to as an Advance Health Care Directive.

Do I need a General Power of Attorney?
Most people should, at least, have a conversation with their attorney about this. The best example to consider is where a person is involved in a serious accident or becomes seriously ill, causing that person to become either partially or totally mentally or physically impaired. If a person is no longer able to make decisions for himself or physically attend to his affairs, someone needs to have the legal authority to do it for him. Powers of Attorney between spouses are very important because even though a spouse can do many things for the other spouse, he cannot do everything, including signing the spouse's name to a check or other legal document. In the absence of a General Power of Attorney, once a person has become mentally impaired, the only way someone can be appointed to handle his affairs is by the court. This is called a guardianship proceeding and it is both expensive and time consuming.

Once I create a General Power of Attorney, can I change it or revoke it?
Yes, you change or revoke a General Power of Attorney at any time so long as you do it in writing, and be sure that the written modification or revocation is distributed to everyone who needs to know.

I already have a General Power of Attorney - do I need to update it?
There was a significant change in the Pennsylvania statute governing general powers of attorney in 1999. Since that time, a number of important court decisions have been made interpreting the statute. Lawyers who practice in this area are aware of those changes and carefully draft a General Power of Attorney to fit the needs of their clients. We recommend that if your General Power of Attorney is more than three years old, you have it reviewed by an attorney with experience in this field.

How do I find out more about a General Power of Attorney?
Contact your attorney and ask if he or she has experience in this area. Not every attorney has this experience. Our firm has several very experienced attorneys in this field. You may contact us by calling (610) 323-7464.