Who will manage my finances and investments if I am sick or incapacitated? Who will pick what doctor treats me or if a risky but potentially lifesaving procedure should be performed? What if I am put on life sustaining medical support? These are the sorts of questions and issues typically handled by your power of attorney. As they suggest, these are critically important decisions that shouldn’t be taken lightly. Fundamentally, however, these issues can only be handled by your power of attorney if they possess authority, given by you and in writing, to do so. This is why ever since 2012, when Ohio law changed, “hot powers” are a significant topic for you to discuss with your estate planning attorney.
I. Durable Power of Attorney
To understand what hot powers are, you must understand what a power of attorney is. A financial power of attorney, also known as a durable power of attorney, is a legal document that a person can use to appoint someone to act on his or her behalf, i.e. an agency appointment. A power of attorney comes in many forms, but its primary purpose is to grant authority to one or more responsible parties to handle financial or health decisions of a person in the event of illness or other incapacity. Life, and its associated obligations and burdens, tend to continue regardless of one’s physical or mental health. Powers of attorney are protection that ensures affairs are handled and medical wishes are followed even if you are lacking capacity in mind or body.
As stated, powers of attorneys come in many forms. A financial power of attorney, as the name suggests, grants your agent the authority to make financial decisions for you. Managing investments, buying selling land or property, representing you in business negotiations, etc. Healthcare power of attorney works the same way but with healthcare decisions. If you are incapacitated or otherwise can’t decide for yourself, your agent will decide who your doctor is, what treatment you undergo, what medication should be administered, etc.
As always, the terms, powers, and limits for your agents are decided by you in the documents that appoint your agent. If you want to add limits on how long they are appointed, what issues they can or cannot decide, or when exactly their powers manifest, you can do so. Furthermore, you always possess the authority to dismiss them outright or appoint someone new.
Powers of attorney are important to have because surviving spouses or family members will face difficulty and frustration gaining access to things like bank accounts and property that is in your name only. This can be especially damaging within the context of business or professional relations in which the “gears of industry” must keep moving. Alas, if an individual trusted to handle the business if something happens doesn’t possess the authority to so, significant or even fatal business consequences may result. The same goes for medical decisions, often treatment decisions must be made right there and then. Hesitation may mean permanent damage or death to you and if someone doesn’t have express authority to make those decisions, things get confusing, messy, and take a lot longer.
II. “Hot Powers”
So, where do “hot powers” fit in all this. Effective March 22, 2012, Ohio adopted the Uniform Power of Attorney Act, or UPOAA, which was focused on preventing financial elder abuse. Now, powers of attorney must include a statutory language designed to help prevent agents from abusing their power. Put simply, the law now demands power of use more specific drafting and specific denotation “hot powers.”
“Hot powers” grant extraordinary powers to your agent and often these powers can have the effect of altering your estate plan. As such, these powers must be expressly granted per statutory guidelines before they are used by your agent. The most popular of them is the power to gift money or property. “Hot powers” are often used to continue a plan of gifting, sheltering money or property from costs of late life healthcare. Specified gifting “hot powers” can gift anywhere from a limited dollar amount or unlimited, dependent on the scope of the “hot powers” granted and the goals of your estate plan. Further, this power can also be limited to a class of people, such as spouse or children.
Since this new law, third parties such as a financial institution are not required to honor a general power of attorneys. Now, the law asks that a power of attorney include specifically which types of assets and accounts the agent is allowed to control. The spirit of this change is to 1) ensure individuals specifically know and agree to the powers they are giving, and 2) there will no longer be agents running around with “golden tickets” that allow them to do whatever they want to under the sun.
III. Should you give “hot powers”
Like every question in estate planning, whether you should give “hot powers” is circumstantial. The main consideration is who will be given the powers and under what terms. As stated above, “hot powers” are extraordinary powers meaning in the wrong hands they are really screw up your life and a well-crafted estate plan.
Regardless of whether you give these powers or not, it is probably wise to have your Cleveland estate planning attorney look at your powers of attorney if it has been more than five years. The law and your personal circumstances change quite often. Note, a power of attorney created before the 2012 law change will still be valid, however, it may be deficient in expected ways, ways that could hurt you down the line. In sum, the 2012 change means agents are prohibited from performing certain acts unless the power of attorney specifically authorizes them. Because financial power of attorney documents give significant powers to another person, they should be granted only after careful consideration and consultation with experienced legal counsel.