What is a Power of Attorney?

Legal matters, business strategy and life perspectives from the mind of a non-attorney.

When I was little, sometimes mom and dad would go on vacation and leave me and my brother with Nana.

One of the things I can remember about that is mom pulling me aside and telling me that she was leaving an important note. It said something along the lines of, “If either of my children should need medical treatment between the dates of ____ and ____, I authorize _____________ [Nana] to make those decisions on my behalf.”

Then mom and dad would both sign it.

I won’t get into the psychology behind why THAT is something I vividly remember… I’ll just chalk it up to: I’m weird.

From mom and dad’s perspective, obviously the hope in leaving the note was that whoever was watching us – usually Nana – could show this note to a doctor, and be able to make immediate medical decisions on our behalf – if it was ever necessary.

In legal speak, we would refer to this as a Power of Attorney (POA) for Minor Children. Albeit an unofficial one.

To make it “official”, an attorney would likely draft it and it would be signed by a public notary. It would say essentially the same things as what my mom wrote on a notepad, but there would be no questions as to its legitimacy if Nana ever had to use it. Parents who have an official Power of Attorney for Minor Children can be 100% confident that a doctor will immediately listen to the direction of whoever is granted authority. It’s a small thing, but as we know, minutes can sometimes make a big difference in a medical emergency.

I start there because most of you who have been away from your kids for a period of time can relate to it – you probably did something similar to what my parents did, or at least thought about doing it.

Of course, the POA for Minor Children is not the only Power of Attorney you should know about…


Healthcare Power of Attorney: A legal form that says, “Hey, guys, if I’m ever so ‘out of it’ that I can’t think straight and make decisions for myself, I want _______________ to be able to make health care decisions for me.”

Financial Power of Attorney: A legal form that says, “Hey, guys, if I’m ever so ‘out of it’ that I can’t think straight and make decisions for myself, I want _______________ to be able to make financial decisions for me.”

Special or Limited Power of Attorney: A legal form that says, “Hey, guys, if I’m ever so ‘out of it’ that I can’t think straight and make decisions for myself, I want _______________ to be able to make ___________ decisions for me.” It designates a specific person for a specific kind of decision. Business owners, for example, often have a Special Power of Attorney, just for their business.


More Stuff Related to Power of Attorney:

Living Will: First, you should know that this document is completely unrelated to the conventional will and living trust that can be used to leave property at death. The LIVING WILL is used to provide guidance or state choices for treatment at the end of life. It says, “Hey, guys, if I’m ever so ‘out of it’ that I can’t think straight and make decisions for myself AND I (have a terminal condition/am in a persistent vegetative state), I (want you to/don’t want you to) pull the plug.”

Advance Directive: This term is just annoying to me. I think it exists just to confuse people. It is used to describe a legal document that tells doctors how you want them to carry out medical decisions you have made, even if you cannot communicate these decisions for yourself.

  • Healthcare POA and Living Will are two kinds of Advance Directives.
  • It’s really smart to have BOTH a Healthcare POA and a Living Will. In this case, you have designated a person AND given them instructions for handling your health.
  • Having an advance directive does not affect the quality of your care.
  • Having an advance directive does not affect life insurance or health insurance.

Final Disposition: Instructions for your burial.

Healthcare Proxy/Healthcare Agent/Surrogate: These terms are interchangeable. It is the person who you have given authority to make your healthcare decisions.

The word “Durable”: In the vast majority of cases, a Healthcare or Financial Power of Attorney can also be described as “durable”. Anyone who uses the word is simply emphasizing the fact that the Power of Attorney remains effective, even after the individual is unable to make decisions. It’s kind of like going to a restaurant and exclaiming, “I want my food to TASTE GOOD!” Duh. Of course you do… That’s the whole point of it.

  • Bottom line: “Durable” POA’s are the norm, and it takes a unique situation for a “non-durable” POA to become relevant.

Food for Thought:

So this post is all fine and dandy, and my sincere hope is that you have picked up a bit of clarity on the topic in exchange for your time. But… We really haven’t accomplished anything if nobody chooses to act on that clarity.

Science will tell us that 20% of the population will never bother themselves with a something like a POA… They just don’t give a damn.

Another 20% seemingly came out of the womb knowing that this is something they needed to do. They got it done ASAP, and probably convinced a smattering of their closest friends/family to do the same.

The remaining 60% of us are somewhere in limbo. Swaying in the breeze of indecisiveness. Somedays – like today perhaps – thinking, “Yeah, that guy makes some good points. That seems like a really smart idea. I need to do that,” only to have the thought drift away. After all, it doesn’t feel very urgent.

Imagine, for a second, that you are hosting a birthday party for your 2 year old child. Friends and family are planning to attend, and they will be at your house in about an hour. Then, like clockwork, your husband forgets to pick up a cake on the way home from work. Ooo… Triggered. What are the chances that you would make him turn around and drive 30-45 minutes to go get the cake? Pretty high, right? It feels urgent because people are going to be at your house in about an hour and the house is a mess and the world is falling apart. But, REALLY, on a scale from 0-10 where:

  • 0 = Completely Irrelevant
  • 10 = Life or Death

How IMPORTANT is it to have a cake at the party? For your husband, yeah it might be a solid 10. But for everyone else? Probably in the 1-2 range. We know they will be happy to be sipping coffee and eating the ice cream or whatever else you have for them. The point: It feels super urgent so it gets done. No question about it.

Now, it’s tough to draw a direct comparison… But on the same scale (0-10), how IMPORTANT is it to have a Power of Attorney? Probably in the 7-9 range? Clearly way more IMPORTANT than having a cake at your 2 year old’s birthday party.

Problem: It doesn’t feel urgent. So 60% of us do nothing, even though it would take about as much time and effort as going to pick up a cake from the grocery store. That 60% of us remains in limbo until some crazy life event smacks us in the face that makes it feel SUPER urgent: A parent, family member, friend, etc. goes through a nightmare situation. Such is life.

Please. Spare yourself the theatrics, strap on your big-boy pants, and generate your own sense of urgency. Don’t wait for life to do it for you.

Thanks to all for the continued support! If you have questions, comments, or topic suggestions for us, please direct those to: [email protected]

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