When acting as someone else's agent under a valid power of attorney form, you have the legal authority to act in his place and to handle certain business, personal and financial transactions on his behalf. Knowing how to sign checks, sign documents and conduct transactions as an authorized agent, or power of attorney, can help you avoid personal legal responsibility for your actions in that capacity.
What is a Power of Attorney?
A power of attorney is legal permission to act on someone's behalf for key decision making. There are generally two types. A financial power of attorney gives you the power to make decisions about money and property; for example, paying bills, collecting Social Security benefits, managing bank accounts and, if necessary, selling the person's home. A medical power of attorney gives you the power to make decisions about the person's healthcare, such as the medical care they receive, daily routines and whether they should move into a care home.
The person giving the power can only set it up while they are capable of making decisions for themselves. This is known as legal capacity. The idea is to give someone else the ability to sign documents and carry out important tasks when that person is unable to, for instance, because of prolonged ill health or because they will be out of the country.
Understanding Your Role
Serving as someone else's agent under a power of attorney form helps ensure that the person can continue to meet financial obligations, even if she is not physically or mentally able to do so. Powers of attorney are authorized by state laws. The requirements to create a valid power of attorney, the powers granted and the legal requirements for acting in that role differ from state to state, so it is important to understand the specific laws that govern your actions. In all states, to act as someone else's agent, you must be at least 18 years old and mentally capable.
The Power of Attorney Form Can Limit Your Authority
Be sure you have legal authority to act before signing a document or executing a financial transaction for someone else. In some cases, your authority to act under a power of attorney on behalf of another person does not begin until that person becomes incapacitated or incompetent to act for themselves. In other cases, the power of attorney form takes effect immediately after the principal – the person creating the form – has signed it.
It is also important to clearly understand the scope of authority you have under the power of attorney form. When people create powers of attorney in an estate planning context, they generally give their named agent broad authority to handle all types of transactions. But powers of attorney can also be used to provide limited authority. For example, a power of attorney may give the agent the ability to handle only real estate transactions on the principal's behalf, but not general banking transactions. Understand the limits of authority you have been granted, and don't exceed your power.
Read More: Power of Attorney Letter
Acceptable Signature Formats
It's always a good idea to first ask the specific financial institution or service provider if there is a required format for POA signatures, but there are several generally accepted methods of signing a form, document or check as an authorized agent under a power of attorney. If your name is Jane Doe, and the person who gave you power of attorney is John Doe, you could sign a document as:
- "Jane Doe, attorney-in-fact for John Doe"
- "John Doe, by Jane Doe, as attorney-in-fact for John Doe"
- "John Doe, by Jane Doe under POA"
Finally, you should have the signed POA form with you when signing a document for someone else as their attorney-in-fact if the bank or other financial institution does not already have it on file. That legal document is proof that you are authorized to transact business on behalf of another person.
If you have power of attorney and wish to sign documents on behalf of your principal, sign the document in your own name but add "as attorney-in-fact" or a similar signifier to indicate that you are acting under a power of attorney.
- Make sure your signature always indicates that you are signing as an agent under a power of attorney authorization.
- If you do not sign legal documents as a power of attorney agent, you can become personally liable for the payment or contract you have signed.
- As agent for a principal you have a legal fiduciary duty to manage that principal's financial assets and carry out their wishes regarding business matters. Consult an attorney if you have any questions about your responsibilities.
Cindy Cook DeRuyter is an attorney in private practice and a freelance writer. She earned her J.D. from Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul, MN and her B.A. in Management and Communication from Concordia University in Mequon, WI. When she's not reading or writing, she enjoys spending time with her husband, their teenage son and their three dogs.