Sometimes we run across helpful articles that do a good job of stating a problem, without providing much of a solution. Such is the case with this recent article we found on the website www.AgingCare.com. It’s entitled “Family Feuds over Power of Attorney,” and it warns seniors of a problem we have repeatedly emphasized with our clients: the decision of who has the power to take legal action on your behalf, if not handled appropriately, can negatively impact your family for years, even decades to come.
Fortunately here at Aging Options we do have a solution to the problem posed by this timely article. But first let’s briefly explore the question, “Why can choosing someone as your Power of Attorney (POA) cause such conflict?”
The Aging Care article is written by elder care writer Lori Johnston. She states that sometimes the decision to appoint one of your adult children as your POA seems obvious to you. One son or daughter may be the oldest, the most responsible, or the one who lives closest to you. But even this choice that appears simple and straightforward to you can cause backlash. As Johnston writes, “[Even] if the appointment of POA is smooth and didn’t involve much gnashing of teeth, that doesn’t mean bickering won’t begin once the person granted POA assumes duties related to parents’ financial and medical decisions. Many times, the challenge to the POA happens after the parent passes away.”
We know of one particular case where the child granted Power of Attorney privileges for an aging woman was not her oldest but her youngest, because he and his wife lived closer and were already involved in her affairs. For this family the POA appointment did not cause strife – but for many it can. Why is this issue so contentious? The Aging Care article lists three emotional minefields that can trigger sibling strife when it comes to making decisions for Mom or Dad.
The first is sibling rivalry. Here the tensions and disagreements that have always existed between family members erupt into outright conflict based on mutual mistrust. Johnston writes that “Ongoing sibling rivalry can chip away at the ‘power’ that someone granted Power of Attorney holds” and lead to arguments over every decision, even simple ones.
A second source of friction, especially in the area of end of life decisions, is the inability of the POA designee to let go. The article cites a case in which a mother had a living will explicitly directing her children to follow her end-of-life wishes. The sibling with Power of Attorney refused to comply. A bedside hearing resulted in which the decision of the sibling with POA authority was overruled and the mother was allowed to pass away peacefully, just as she had desired.
A final scenario in which the potential for conflict is ripe involves family feuds over finances. Often the sibling with POA authority may decide to pay himself or herself back out of the inheritance for extra expenses they may have incurred in caring for Mom or Dad – buying food, paying for medicines, taking their parent to doctor’s appointments, even time spent going over a parent’s affairs. Where siblings mistrust one another, a sense of entitlement can lead to accusations of unfairness; sometimes lawsuits erupt, severing family ties forever.
So what’s our answer to this potential minefield of conflict? When we work with our clients we always emphasize clear, open, honest communication among family members. We have conducted hundreds of meetings in our office in which parents and their adult offspring gather to review Mom and Dad’s retirement plan, which we call a LifePlan. This includes legal issues such as Powers of Attorney. It also encompasses health care wishes, financial plans, and housing preferences. In our experience, the earlier and more openly you involve your adult children in every aspect of your LifePlan, explaining your decisions clearly, the less likely that conflict, misunderstanding and accusations of unfairness will result.
We cover family dynamics and many other aspects of creating a LifePlan at our free LifePlanning Seminars. Why not plan to attend one soon? Click on the Upcoming Events tab on this website for all the details. We hope to meet you in the near future at one of these highly enjoyable, information-packed events.
(originally reported at www.agingcare.com)