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Power of attorney

A power of attorney or letter of attorney is an authorization to act on someone else's behalf in a legal or business matter. The person authorizing the other to act is the "principal" or "grantor (of the power)," and the one authorized to act is the "agent" or "attorney in fact." The attorney in fact acts "in the principal's name," signing the principal's name to documents and filing suit with the principal's name as plaintiff, for example. As one kind of agent, an attorney in fact is a fiduciary for the principal, so the law requires an attorney in fact to be completely honest with and loyal to the principal in their dealings with each other. If the attorney in fact is being paid to act for the principal, their contract is a separate matter from the power of attorney itself, so if that contract is in writing, it is a separate document, kept private between them, whereas the power of attorney is intended to be shown to various other people.

The power of attorney (often called "P O A" for short) may be oral -- such as asking someone else to sign your name on a check because your arm is broken -- or may be in writing, but many institutions -- such as hospitals, banks, and the I.R.S. -- require a power of attorney to be in writing before they will honor it (and they usually want to keep a copy for their records). The "equal dignity rule" is a principle of law that requires a document authorizing someone representing someone else to have been appointed with the same formality as required for the act the representative is going to perform, and it applies to powers of attorney: That means, for example, that if you give someone your power of attorney to sign the papers to sell your house, and the law requires that signature on the deed to be notarized, then your power of attorney authorizing that attorney in fact to sign the deed must be notarized, too.

A power of attorney may be "special" or "limited" to one specified act or type of act, or it may be "general," and whatever it defines as its scope is what a court will enforce as being its scope. (It may also be limited as to time.) Under the common law, a power of attorney becomes ineffective if its grantor dies or becomes "incapacitated," meaning unable to grant such a power, because of physical injury or mental illness, for example. Under the laws of the U.S. states, however, a grantor may specify that a power of attorney will continue to be effective even if the grantor becomes incapacitated (but it will still end when the grantor dies); such a "durable power of attorney," often called a "living will," is used to appoint someone to make health-care decisions for the grantor, up to and including "pulling the plug" on machines keeping them clinically alive. Unless the power of attorney has been made "irrevocable" (by its own terms or by some legal principle), the grantor may "revoke" (= cancel or "take back") the power of attorney by telling the attorney in fact it is revoked.

Many standardized forms are available (usually for free) for various kinds of powers of attorney, and many organizations provide them for their clients, customers, patients, employees, or members.



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