As some of you may know, I have a great love of music and a terrible sense of humour. It may come as no surprise then that I’m a huge Monty Python fan. One of my all time favourite short movies is Romance with a Double Bass, from 1974, starting John Cleese and his then-wife Connie Booth. The movie is based on an Antoine Chekhov short story about a rather hapless double bass player from the royal court and the princess who both find themselves accidentally skinny dipping. Much wonderful comedy occurs in their attempt to sneak the princess back into the castle inside a double bass case with her dignity still (mainly) intact.
If you’ve never seen this charming movie you should check it out – but be warned, it includes plot-driven nudity and far more of John Cleese than you’ve ever seen (or may want to see).
Keep your fiscal pants from falling down
Unfortunately, salvaging your finances doesn’t involve much hilarity, nor something as simple a double bass case. What it does absolutely require, however, is up-to-date powers of attorney (POA). Unlike a will, POAs are for when “you aren’t dead yet,” but otherwise incapable or unable to make decisions on your own behalf.
In Ontario, there are two types of POAs – one for property (which includes your financial affairs) and another for healthcare. Each is a separate document, and it’s absolutely vital you have these in place. Rather than talking to the specifics of each of these documents, I want to highlight some lessons around the practical uses of POAs that I’ve learned as a financial planner over the years.
- Make sure it’s accessible
As obvious as this sounds, this is actually the most important thing I can tell you. Make sure your powers of attorney know where to get copies of your POAs. I once worked with a family where the mother had locked these documents in a safety deposit box, but the bank branch had closed years before and no one had any idea how to track them down. Eventually the court had to be involved to appoint a family member to look after their mom’s affairs.
- Where healthcare is involved, you most likely should say “or” not “and” with joint attorneys
I recently attended a talk by Dr. Natalie Hertzman, Medical Director of St. Joseph’s Hospice here in London. She strongly emphasized to the crowd that in her experience, many medical situations require immediate decisions. As a palliative care doctor, she has had situations where they were unable to get confirmation from both appointed joint POAs in a timely fashion, leading to compromises in the medical care of the family member. If your healthcare POA says “John and Susan,” the doctors must get consent from both POAs before any action can be taken – and if John isn’t available, Susan has no authority. On the other hand, if it says “John or Susan” then either John or Susan can give instructions and the doctors can act immediately.
- Family members have no right to financial information just because they’re family
If we have one constant issue with POA situations in our office, it’s that most people assume that if they’re immediate family, they’re entitled to information. This isn’t true – if you’re over the age of majority no one can act on your behalf or gain information to your accounts unless you have made them your POA for property or a court has granted them authority.
As a financial planner, some of the most uncomfortable conversations I’ve had are about this topic. Part of the confusion comes from the fact that for healthcare, in the absence of a POA, family does have some legal right to make decisions, but the same does not hold true for finances.
- Sometimes, family is not the best choice for POA
Sometimes it’s not the best idea to make a family member a POA. Take for instance a business owner. In my case, my wife is the POA for my personal financial affairs, but I have a corporate POA appointed for my ownership interest in Quiet Legacy. Why? The business has regulatory and other requirements that would chew up a lot of Bridget’s time to get up to speed on, as her primary occupation is as a teacher. I’m comfortable appointing a trust company to handle my business interests, as they have staff who are trained on corporate rules and responsibilities. It’s way easier and more efficient to delegate this task to them. I’ve made provisions that if activated, they do need to consult with Bridget and honour her wishes when possible, but the legal responsibility falls to them, not her.
At the end of the day, you don’t want to be caught with your financial pants down, hiding behind a double bass. Make sure you check that your POA is up to date and effective for your circumstances. If you do, then you’ll always look on the bright side of life!
This information is general in nature, and is intended for informational purposes only. For specific situations you should consult the appropriate legal, accounting or tax advisor.