Gregory L. Williams March 10, 2020

This is not an attempt to scare you with more news of the impacts of the novel coronavirus (also known as COVID-19). Indeed, in many fundamental ways, there’s no reason for us to be anymore concerned today than we were last year. That’s because COVID-19 is simply highlighting an ever-present reality that’s no more true now than it was last Thanksgiving: anything can happen to us, our family, and our friends, and as much as we want to plan and control our lives, we cannot (at least not really). Whether it’s the coronavirus or a car wreck, we are not guaranteed our safety, our health—or even our lives.

That said, however, I also don’t want to downplay or underestimate the genuine (and ever-increasing) risk that COVID-19, specifically, presents for many people—especially the elderly or those with pre-existing medical conditions. We should all take this rapidly developing public health issue seriously and do what we can to stay safe while disrupting our lives the least. So act on the advice from professionals and do what you can to prevent contracting COVID-19:

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom; before eating; and after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing;

  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth;

  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash; and

  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe.

For some, however, the above steps may not be enough. For you, safety may mean a severe disruption to your life by avoiding close contact with people who are sick and staying home when you are sick. If this is you, is there anything you can do to mitigate the disturbance to your daily affairs?

Yes, there is: a power of attorney.

What is a power of attorney?

A power of attorney allows you (known as the principal) to appoint a person or organization (known as an agent or attorney-in-fact) to act on your behalf. It's a useful tool if you are unable to attend to some issues yourself but cannot afford for those matters to wait until after this public health issue blows over.

Most powers of attorney are “general”—that is, they indefinitely give broad powers to your agent to act on your behalf. “General” powers may include almost anything, including selling property (personal and real), managing real estate, handling business transactions, handling personal financial affairs, making gifts, or employing professional help. Alternatively, you can draft one that is specific to certain tasks for a specified time, known as a “special” power of attorney, which may delegate particular powers for a limited period.

Appointing an Agent

When you select someone to be your agent, you must pick the right person. He or she should always act in your best interest and, ideally, follow your instructions. So before you choose an agent, ask yourself the following questions:

Do you trust the person?

Trust is paramount. While your agent has a legal duty to act in your best interest, he or she technically has the freedom to do whatever they like if they can persuasively argue that it is in your best interest—even if you personally disagree with their actions. So even more important than the instructions, the most important thing to establish with your agent is trust.

Does the person truly understand your feelings?

The agent should know you so well that they understand your own points of view and opinions. If he or she does, you can be sure that they would carry out your wishes, even if you don’t give them step-by-step instructions.

Does the person have time to handle your affairs?

He or she must be able to spend as much time to handle your affairs and work on your behalf as is necessary.

Is the person readily available?

Appoint an agent who is easily accessible or available. This is to make sure he or she will be present in cases of emergency. This doesn't mean "24 hours a day, seven days a week" availability, but at least he or she should be easily contacted through the phone.

Does the person know about handling finances?

You may be entrusting significant financial matters to the agent. So, it would be best if you appointed an agent who has at least a fundamental understanding of personal finances. If he or she doesn't, then that person should at least know where to obtain and be willing to ask for help from the experts.

So, for example, if you’re an older adult who feels the need to quarantine but wants to ensure that your personal financial affairs stay on track, you can appoint an adult child as your agent to manage them in the meantime. Or, if you’re a business owner with a pre-existing health condition who wants to ensure the deal you were supposed to close next week gets done, you can appoint a trusted associate to execute the contract in your place while you take preventative measures to avoid getting sick.

Like all other things, this public health matter shall pass, too. So remember that you can revoke a power of attorney at any time. Just notify your agent in writing of the revocation and retrieve all copies of your power of attorney.

Life is full of the unexpected—including the reality of COVID-19, which just a few weeks ago was half a world away but now is right in our backyard. And while there’s little we can do to control or prevent what life throws at us, we can prepare for it as best we can. To that end, it is essential to understand what a power of attorney is and how it can assist help you, even when you are not in a position to help yourself.