A power of attorney (POA) or letter of attorney is a written authorization to represent or act on another’s behalf in private affairs, business, or some other legal matter. The person authorizing the other to act is the principal, grantor, or donor (of the power), and the one authorized to act is the agent, donee, or attorney or, in some common law jurisdictions, the attorney-in-fact. Formerly, a power referred to an instrument under seal while a letter was an instrument under hand, but today both are under hand (i.e., signed by the donor), and therefore there is no difference between the two.
A power of attorney may be special or limited to one specified act or type of act, or it may be general, and whatever it defines as its scope is what a court will enforce as being its scope. (It may also be limited as to time.)
Durable power of attorney
Under the common law, a power of attorney becomes ineffective if its grantor dies or becomes “incapacitated,” meaning unable to grant such a power, because of physical injury or mental illness, for example, unless the grantor (or principal) specifies that the power of attorney will continue to be effective even if the grantor becomes incapacitated (but any such power ends when the grantor dies). This type of power of attorney is called “power of attorney with durable provisions” or “enduring power of attorney”.
Health care power of attorney
In some jurisdictions, a durable power of attorney can also be a “health care power of attorney”, which empowers the attorney-in-fact (proxy) to make health care decisions for the grantor, up to and including terminating care and ending life supports that are keeping a critically and terminally ill patient alive. Health care decisions include the power to consent, refuse consent or withdraw consent to any type of medical care, treatment, service or procedure.
Relationship with advance health care directive
Related to the health care power of attorney is a separate document known as an advance health care directive or “living will”. A living will is a written statement of a person’s health care and medical wishes but does not appoint another person to make health care decisions. Depending upon the jurisdiction, a health care power of attorney may or may not appear with an advance health care directive in a single, physical document. For example, the California legislature has adopted a standard power of attorney for health care and advance health care directive form that meets all the legal wording requirements for a power of attorney and advance health care directive in California. Compare this to New York State, which enacted a Health Care Proxy law that requires a separate document be prepared appointing one as your health care agent.
Springing power of attorney
In some U.S. states and other jurisdictions it is possible to grant a springing power of attorney; i.e., a power that only takes effect after the incapacity of the grantor or some other definite future act or circumstance. After such incapacitation the power is identical to a durable power, but cannot be invoked before the incapacity. This may be used to allow a spouse or family member to manage the grantor’s affairs in case illness or injury makes the grantor unable to act, without the power of an attorney-in-fact before the incapacity occurs. If a springing power is used, care should be given to specify exactly how and when the power springs into effect. As the result of privacy legislation in the U.S., medical doctors will often not reveal information relating to capacity of the principal unless the power of attorney specifically authorizes them to do so.
Determining whether or not the principal is “disabled” enough for the power of attorney to “spring” into action is a formal process. Springing powers of attorney are not automatic, and institutions may refuse to work with the attorney-in-fact. Disputes are then resolved in court, which is of course a costly, and usually unwanted, procedure.
Unless the power of attorney has been made irrevocable (by its own terms or by some legal principle), the grantor may revoke the power of attorney by telling the attorney-in-fact it is revoked; however, if the principal does not inform third parties and it is reasonable for the third parties to rely upon the power of attorney being in force, the principal may still be bound by the acts of the agent, though the agent may also be liable for such unauthorized acts.