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Is Someone with Power of Attorney Responsible for Debt After Death?

Melissa Lyken | April 11, 2024

Melissa Lyken
Legal Expert, Paralegal
Melissa Lyken, BS

Melissa Lyken is a senior paralegal and legal-finance content writer with over eight years of professional legal and business experience and a bachelor’s degree in Sociology and Community Studies from the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Edited by Hannah Locklear

Hannah Locklear
Editor at SoloSuit
Hannah Locklear, BA

Hannah Locklear is SoloSuit’s Marketing and Impact Manager. With an educational background in Linguistics, Spanish, and International Development from Brigham Young University, Hannah has also worked as a legal support specialist for several years.

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George Simons
Co-Founder of SoloSuit
George Simons, JD/MBA

George Simons is the co-founder and CEO of SoloSuit. He has helped Americans protect over $1 billion from predatory debt lawsuits. George graduated from BYU Law school in 2020 with a JD/MBA. In his spare time, George likes to cook, because he likes to eat.

Summary: Having Power of Attorney does not make you responsible for the principal's debt when they die unless other legal ties obligate you. Learn whether you have any liability for the debt and how to protect yourself and the person for whom you hold the power of attorney.

The primary purpose of a power of attorney is to act as another person's legal agent during their lifetime should they need you. But what happens when they pass away? You may be wondering if you will be responsible for any debts after the principal's death. Let's take a closer look.

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In this article, we will address the following questions:

  • What is a power of attorney?
  • What is a power of attorney responsible for?
  • Am I responsible for my parent's debt if I have a power of attorney?
  • Should you pay a debt collection because I hold a power of attorney?
  • Can being a power of attorney get me into debt?

First, let's discuss the authority a POA gives you.

What is a power of attorney?

A power of attorney is a legal document that gives someone the authorization to act on behalf of someone else. In other words, power of attorney gives you (the agent) authority to act on behalf of the principal in the event of incapacitation. Generally, this document makes you the person responsible for making decisions for them when they can't.

A principal is a person who designates power of attorney.

The agent (or attorney-in-fact) is the individual who is granted legal authority through a Power of Attorney.

A power of attorney (POA) gives the agent authority to manage the principal's affairs, including finances, property, or medical-related decisions. The powers of attorney given can vary broadly depending on the terms of the document. The power given can be as narrow as, “I give this person power to sign for this purchase of a car” to “I give this person power to do anything for me in my name.”

So, there are different types of power of attorney. Below, we discuss some of them.

Financial power of attorney

As a financial POA, you have the authority to manage businesses, bank accounts, pay debts, etc. Depending on the type of POA, you may be able to sign and accept checks on the principal's behalf. It is crucial to read the contract carefully so as not to overstep your mandate. There are different types of financial power of attorneys, including:

  • General power of attorney: The agent is given overall authority over the principal's finances and manages the principal's estate and property, according to the POA contract. In some cases, the agent can also access the principal's bank accounts and pay for bills and other expenses on the principal's behalf. They can also collect debts and make investment decisions on behalf of the principal.
  • Limited/specific power of attorney: The agent has authority over certain aspects of the principal's affairs concerning their estate and property while alive. The Limited POA clearly states which aspects these are and how long the authority lasts.
  • Durable power of attorney: The DPOA stays effective even after changes in the principal's situation. A separate document, “springing,” explains events that must occur before the DPOA agent can take specific actions.

Before you sign a contract as an agent, be sure to read and understand what your duties entail. Every state has a statutory form for POAs. Here's an example for the state of New York of a Durable Power of Attorney.

Health care power of attorney (HCPOA)

As a HCPOA, the agent has the power to decide what kind of medical care the principal receives, including surgeries, hospital/home care, or psychiatric treatment if the principal is incapacitated. They also decide on the doctors or care providers and other health-related issues such as the principal's diet and even who bathes the principal.

Note: A power of attorney becomes null and void once the principal dies. The POA will not serve any meaningful purpose because the principal's death relinquishes the POA from any authority over assets or property. Dead persons can't legally hold money or own property. However, if stated in the POA, the agent can be authorized to make financial transactions. But the property will be transferred to the deceased principal's estate in the care of the estate executor.

What if, as a POA, you are also a relative of the principal? You might be wondering if that makes you responsible for their debts, medical bills, and nursing home fees. Keep reading to find out the financial responsibilities of an agent with a POA.

Am I responsible for my parent's debt if I have a power of attorney?

No. A POA does not transfer your parent's debts to you. Unless you are party to the debt (as discussed below), your only responsibility is to execute their wishes as stipulated in the contract. When they pass away, the responsibility for debts goes to the executor, who must oversee the payment of outstanding debts.

Is POA responsible for medical bills?

No. The law does not require you to pay the medical bills only because you have a POA—the bills go to the individual's health care insurer or their estate. Deciding to pay medical bills for a loved one is purely a personal choice. Therefore, medical debt collectors cannot come after you for your parent's medical bills after they die.

Is power of attorney responsible for nursing home bills?

No. You should not feel obligated to pay nursing home debts left behind when the principal dies. The contract they signed with the institution clearly states who should cover their bills. When they die, the POA does not make you responsible. The executor must oversee the use of their estate to cover the debt.

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What is a power of attorney responsible for?

With great power comes great responsibility, and this statement is very true when it comes to a power of attorney.

The power of attorney is responsible for:

  • Representing the Principal: Acting on behalf of the principal in their absence or incapacity.
  • Financial Management: Handling bank accounts, investments, financial transactions, managing real estate matters, including sales and purchases, and paying bills and overseeing financial affairs, and filing tax returns.
  • Healthcare Decision-Making: Making medical treatment decisions when the principal is incapacitated, and consulting with doctors and ensuring healthcare wishes are followed.
  • Executing Specific Tasks: Carrying out designated activities such as signing documents or managing property transfers.
  • Legal and Ethical Duties: Acting in the principal's best interest, and maintaining accurate records of all actions and decisions.
  • Adhering to POA Type Specifications: Respecting the boundaries of the specific POA type (Durable, Springing, Healthcare, Financial).
  • End of Authority: Understanding that the POA's validity ends upon the principal's death.

These responsibilities encapsulate the key roles and duties of an individual designated under a Power of Attorney.

What is the difference between a power of attorney and the executor of an estate?

After the expiration of a POA, the executor of the estate becomes responsible for legal and financial matters on behalf of the deceased principal. The executor of the estate is usually named by the will and is bound by its provisions. Essentially, while a power of attorney represents a principal while they are alive, the executor represents the principal after death. Once appointed, the executor can only follow the instructions laid out by the will. If the deceased principal did not leave a will, interstate laws apply to decide how the deceased's estate is managed.

The underlying rule governing an agent's power of attorney is that they must act in their principal's best interest. In this regard, they cannot perform the following tasks:

  1. Alter, modify, or amend a principal's will.
  2. Go against their fiduciary duty to act in the principal's best interest.
  3. Unless named the executor of the principal's will, make estate decisions after the principal's death.
  4. Transfer power of attorney to someone else, but it is within their rights to decline their appointment at any time.

When a POA is responsible for debt

When it comes to debt, an agent acting under a power of attorney is not liable for any debts the principal accrued before being given authority or/and any obligations outside their scope of authority.

However, it is critical to note that as an agent and one of the principal's most trusted companions, you can find yourself liable for the principal's debt in several ways:

  • Co-signers. A person who intentionally guarantees or co-signs a debt together with their principal will remain liable after the principal's death. It does not matter who among the two parties benefited from the debt. If you agree to co-sign a loan with the principal, the contract states that you owe the debt too. If they die, you are responsible for the debt. So, you want to be mindful about creating a situation where you co-sign a debt with power of attorney.
  • Joint Accounts. If the agent and the principal hold a joint bank account, any debt remaining from the account is left under the agent's care when the principal dies. The survivor must settle any debts accrued from the account in full, regardless of who benefited it.
  • Communal Property. In certain states, you have the same rights to property and liabilities as your spouse. You share equal responsibility for debts. Under these state guidelines, marital property (both assets and liabilities) is considered communal. Liability on debt, therefore, falls on the surviving spouse. The nine states with community property laws include: Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin.

If you plan on getting married in these states, you will want to find out if it's wise to marry someone already in debt.

Who settles the principal's debts?

In the event of death, all the outstanding debts liable to the principal should be settled using the property in their estate left after death. The family members of the principal are not responsible for any debts owed by their deceased relative. However, if a family member or members were co-signatories, guarantors, or joint account holders, the debt will automatically fall to them.

The principal's assets will be distributed among the named beneficiaries of the will only after the debts are paid. You should note that if any relative inherits assets like a car or house with a loan/mortgage, the debt is carried forward to them.

Suppose the principal's assets are insufficient and cannot pay all creditors. The estate is usually split up among the creditors. In these cases, the secured creditors get priority.

Can a power of attorney get me into debt?

If you use POA against the contract, you could get into debt. Cases of POA fraud, which are common, or abuse of power that results in debt are your responsibility. So, while it can feel like a privilege to be an agent, it comes with a serious duty to observe the law.

Should you pay a POA debt collection?

Acting in the principal's best interest includes using their money to pay any debts they may have. So, if they can afford to pay, you must disburse payments to the respective lenders (if the contract allows you). If you unreasonably refuse to pay such debts, their accounts may go into collection, which could ruin their credit.

On the other hand, the law does not require you to pay for the principal's debt out of pocket, and no creditor or debt collector should harass you on their behalf. You have a right to dispute the account a collection agency is imposing on you. The Debt Validation Letter is your first line of defense. Because they won't be able to prove the debt is yours, they have to stop contacting you about it.

Some unscrupulous debt collectors may even take you to court. Whatever you do, don't ignore the Summons. You should respond immediately by filing a written Answer with the court. Once they get an Answer, most debt collectors will dismiss the court case.

Remember, you are not personally responsible for paying a deceased person's debt. That should be transferred to their estate. And the executor (not you) should take over the distribution of any assets and money.

So, is POA responsible for debt?

No. The principal's debt is not your responsibility. Still, managing someone else's money is not a light task. But you can succeed in putting the principal's best interest first if you understand your role. When debt collectors try taking undue advantage of the POA, stick it to them with a Debt Validation Letter and respond to all debt lawsuits with an Answer document.

To learn more about how to respond to a debt collection lawsuit, check out this video:

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