Discovering the Limits of a Durable Power of Attorney

I’m on hold with the Social Security Administration right now. Estimated wait time: 50 minutes. My mom didn’t get her year-end social security statement and I need it before I can complete her taxes. I’m not surprised we didn’t get the form. She moved last year and it took me months to change her address. It was really complicated because some organizations, like Social Security, don’t recognize the power of attorney designation. That surprised me. I didn’t realize there were limits to what can be accomplished with a durable power of attorney.

The power of attorney document is supposed to give me control over my mom’s legal, financial, and property matters even if she became incapacitated. But it doesn’t. Not always. The Social Security Administration, the Veterans Administration, Medicare, and most financial institutions have their own forms to fill out and processes to follow if you need to manage someone else’s accounts.

In the past when I needed to complete an administrative task with these types of organizations, my mom was able to verbally authorize me. But she’s now lost that ability. She can’t verify her own identity reliably, let alone mine. We’re in new territory. I need to be able to act on her behalf without her assistance.

Here’s what we did well in preparing for this unexpected turn of events:

I’m Glad We…Created a Durable Power of Attorney

When my dad died, my mother assigned me as her attorney-in-fact with a durable power of attorney document. This has allowed me to take care of most of her affairs.

I’m Glad We…Authorized Bank Account Access

Years ago, my dad had an accident that required emergency surgery in another state. When the recovery extended their vacation well past the expected return date, they took some steps to make it easier for me to help them manage their bills. For example, they added my name to their bank account. I’m glad they did because many banks and financial institutions don’t recognize power of attorney forms that aren’t their own (even though in many states they are required by law to do so.)

I’m Glad We…Secured Access to Other Financial Accounts

I’m also glad my mom signed her financial institution’s specific power of attorney forms while she was still able to do so. If she hadn’t, I would have trouble accessing and managing her other accounts. For other important accounts, I was added as an authorized user long ago.

I’m Glad We…Consolidated Mail Delivery

Since I’m managing my mom’s affairs, I have her mail sent to a post office box near me. I could have had it sent to my house, but I like to keep it separate. That way, I only pick it up when I’m ready to deal with it and I don’t have to look at it piling up in my house. (I’ve got my own piles of mail to deal with here!)

Here’s what we could have done better in preparing:

I Wish We Had…Assigned a Social Security Representative

We did not assign a social security representative before my mom was incapable of authorizing it herself. If we’d know the power of attorney was not recognized by the SSA, we could have completed an Appointment of Representative form earlier. That would have been a simpler process than the one we went through, which required me to go in person to a Social Security office with a letter from her doctor, the power of attorney form, identification, and a boatload lot of patience. In the end, I became her representative payee (and I now have full authority to manage her account as well as her social security income.)

I Wish We Had…Applied for a Credit Card

My mom does not have any credit cards in her name. And without appearing in person, she can’t get one. We’ve tried. This is inconvenient more than anything else. There are workarounds (like paying bills by check, or paying with my own card and reimbursing myself), but if I were to go down this road again I’d make sure my mom had at least one credit card in her own name (not a wallet full of cards that became no good when my dad died and the accounts had to be closed.)

I hope this has been helpful. I’ve got to go now — there’s an SSA agent on the line, and it’s time to finish the taxes!

Take Care,

Karen Purze

P.S. If you’re trying to help a parent manage their affairs and they haven’t designated a power of attorney, you, unfortunately, don’t have too many options if you need direct access to their accounts. You’ll need to get creative about finding workarounds (like paying their bills yourself until you can get a handle on the situation) or get a court involved to designate a guardian. (I’m really sorry if you’re going through this!)

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Karen Purze

About the Author

Karen Purze

Karen Purze is the author of Life In Motion: A Guide for Gathering Life’s Vital Details, a workbook to help people get their affairs in order. She blogs about end-of-life and emergency planning at lifeinmotionguide.com.

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