The first time it was an email. John, the very attentive and sweet son of one of my clients, Ms. [1]Phillips, was writing me because he needed my help. He had just gotten a bill for Mom’s hospital stay and it wasn’t addressed to her: it was addressed to him, PERSONALLY. His Mom was in memory care and hadn’t been able to handle her own personal affairs for quite some time. So, when she needed to go to the hospital to get her medications straightened out, he signed the huge stack of papers they handed him at the hospital and she was admitted.

A year or so prior, before his Mom’s condition had deteriorated, she had appointed John her Power of Attorney and Health Care Surrogate, giving him the authority to act for her. Our documents even specifically absolved him from any personal financial liability when contracting for facility care on her behalf. I assured him all was well and told him to call them and let them know it was Mom’s bill, not his. He would let me know how it went.

The second time, it was a panicked phone call. A collection company is calling him and saying that HE owes the money. I told him to send me the bill and I would get to the bottom of it. I gave the company a call and they faxed me over the admission form and there was John’s name, plain as day. What was missing was a Power of Attorney or Health Care Surrogate designation. Instead of John Phillips, P.O.A. or John Phillips, H.C.S.; it just said John Phillips. This WAS a problem.

Being someone’s Power of Attorney or Health Care Surrogate is an agency agreement. You are agreeing to be her attorney-in-fact, her agent, in all financial matters. This means you are acting FOR her, not personally agreeing to that contract, to pay that bill, or to sell that property. A good Power of Attorney and Health Care Surrogate should be written so that the principal, the person giving the authority, is taken care of AND so that the Attorney-in-fact, the person receiving the authority to act, is protected as well. What does that mean? It means John has to write “P.O.A.” or “H.C.S.” next to his name so the company (or hospital) knows in what capacity he’s acting. We counsel our clients to sign “Agnes Phillips, by John Phillips, P.O.A.” John forgot and now the hospital has a valid argument that HE, not his Mom, owes that debt.

Luckily, Mom had plenty of money to take care of the bill and John wasn’t left holding the bag, but he swore to me that would never happen again. In my mind, I saw him writing over and over again “Agnes Phillips, by John Phillips, P.O.A.” just like a schoolgirl scribbling her boyfriend’s name in her notebook. Maybe it didn’t happen exactly like I pictured it, but I don’t think he’ll ever forget again.

Agnes Phillips, by John Phillips, P.O.A., Agnes Phillips, by John Phillips, P.O.A., , Agnes Phillips, by John Phillips, P.O.A………….

[1] Names changed for confidentiality.