What is a power of attorney?

A power of attorney is a written authorization for someone (an "agent") to represent or act on your behalf. Powers of attorney are commonly used in financial matters and to appoint persons to make medical decisions in case of physical or mental incapacity (see Advance Medical Directive). It is important to make a power of attorney "durable" so it does not expire if you become incapacitated, especially for financial matters.

What can an agent do for you? 

Your agent is required to act in your best interests at all times, as well as keep accurate records, keep their own property separate from yours ("commingling") and avoid conflicts of interest. You can give your agent the power to do a variety of actions on your behalf, including, but not limited to:

  • use of your assets to pay your or your family's everyday expenses
  • buy, sell, pay taxes, mortgage, or maintain real estate
  • collect Social Security or other government benefits
  • handle financial transactions and invest your money in securities 
  • file and pay your taxes
  • claim property entitled to you
  • purchase insurance for you
  • act as your trustee
  • operate your business
  • maintain your retirement accounts

(see DC Code § 21–2103; Va. Code § 64.2-1622 et seq.)

How long does a power of attorney last?

You can create a power of attorney at become effective as soon as you sign it, or you can designate a triggering event that would make it effective when it occurs. You can also designate a set time for its duration; otherwise the power of attorney will expire upon any of the following:

  • Your death: under a power of attorney, your agent cannot act on your behalf to handle your estate. You would need to name him/her as executor in your will.
  • Your revocation: you can end a power of attorney at any time as long as you are mentally competent
  • Absence of agent: if the agent dies, refuses or is otherwise not available to act on your behalf, the power of attorney will expire. Thus, it is important to name a contingent agent in your document.
  • Court order: a court may invalidate a power of attorney if a judge finds you are mentally incompetent or if you signed the document under coercion or duress.
  • End of purpose: the purpose for the power of attorney is accomplished or otherwise no longer exists.

(see Va. Code § 64.2-1608(A))

In some states, powers of attorney between spouses automatically expire upon divorce, while in others (including DC) you need to take active measures to revoke it. In Virginia, unless it's specified in the document, the agent's authority immediately ends at a divorce filing (see Va. Code § 64.2-1608(B)(3)). 


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