A power of attorney gives you (the agent) the legal right to act on behalf of someone else (the principal). The power of attorney document may allow you to make decisions about financial matters, medical treatment or living arrangements, or represent the principal in any legal matters. The laws of each state control how a power of attorney may be drawn up.
Specific and General Responsibilities
There are two general types of power of attorney. A "special" or "specific" power of attorney gives you, as the agent, the right to act in a specified matter and no other. You may hold power of attorney only as an agent in a financial transaction, for example, and have no other responsibilities for the principal. A "general" power of attorney gives the agent a broader scope to act on behalf of the principal and to deal with any and all legal and financial matters on the principal's behalf.
An agent with a power of attorney must still follow instruction from the principal at all times, except when the principal is incapacitated. A "durable" power of attorney gives the agent the authority to act in this circumstance. Even then, state laws bar agents from making changes in the last will and testament of a principal, nor may the agent use a power of attorney to carry out unlawful actions, such as falsifying a tax return.
A power of attorney normally gives an agent authority to enter into broadly defined or specific financial transactions, such as buying and selling investments, handling trusts, making payments, settling debts, operating a business, handling government benefits, and filing and paying taxes on behalf of the principal. A health care power of attorney authorizes the agent to make decisions on medical care, including efforts to keep the principal alive if he is comatose, terminally ill or unresponsive to treatment. The agent must consult with treating doctors and support his actions with professional medical recommendations and opinions.
The agent (also known as the attorney-in-fact) must keep accurate records of transactions and keep copies of documents, court filings, receipts and any other paperwork involved. All relevant documents must be made available to the principal, and in most cases, a principal will require regular reports on any activity carried out on his behalf. The agent must also answer any inquiries from public agencies on his activities.
The power of attorney is not the same as guardianship; a guardian has a broader set of legal authority and can make decisions without specific authority to do so on behalf of the principal. In some cases, a power of attorney only takes effect if a specific event has taken place; this is known as a "springing" power of attorney. A principal can revoke a power of attorney at any time; if the principal dies, then the power of attorney lapses.