Financial Fall-outPosted: February 5, 2012
In September, Jerri stopped taking her medicine. She crawled deep inside a tight cocoon of depression and I didn’t hear from her for weeks. She’d had two major set-backs, learning her financial aid for school had been suspended (she’d not completed the necessary number of classes) and having her laptop (which she can’t afford to replace) ripped from her person and stolen at the bus station. Without financial aid, she couldn’t return to school. Without the laptop, she didn’t know how to occupy her time.
She also skipped paying her bills that month. To make matters worse, she signed up for a special cable deal that she couldn’t afford. In October, her cable bill was almost $200 and when she didn’t pay it, Time Warner turned off her service – phone, Internet, and cable.
Many of us who are trying to help our family members with mental illness know what it’s like to try to deal with the financial fallout of an episode. Privacy laws make it next to impossible to obtain information to help sort out the problem or to intervene on the family member’s behalf. In the case of Time Warner, I didn’t know Jerri was in trouble until November after she restarted her meds. (As an aside, I discovered she was off her meds by checking the monthly drug summary from her Medicare Part D plan which is mailed to my house. There were no fills in September.) By that point, Time Warner had already turned her online account information off so I couldn’t reconstruct the events that had led to the now almost $400 bill. Jerri’s recollection of what happened is hazy and sadly deplete of any hard facts. She is unsure of dates and has no receipts for cash payments made to the cable guy who allegedly came by on two separate occasions – for what, I’m not sure.
The point of this story is I was able to call Time Warner and get the information I need because Jerri had granted me durable power of attorney (POA). Having POA has been invaluable on a number of occasions. It allows me to do things on her behalf that she is either not in a current mental state to handle or is unable to handle logistically because, for example, she has no phone service, no bank card, or has lost the key to her mailbox. Recently I was able to obtain the title to her car which had originally been sent through the mail to an address where she no longer lived. It was still with the DMV and flagged as undeliverable. She needed the title to prove ownership after her car was confiscated by the police from a buyer who had reneged on payments. POA has also allowed me to take money from her bank account to pay rent and to file paperwork for a federally-funded emergency cell phone on her behalf.
What is a Durable Power of Attorney?
It’s a legal document by which your family member grants you the authority to make decisions on her behalf. The document enumerates the specific powers your family member is granting you. These can include the power to:
- purchase, sell, or deal with personal property
- manage banking transactions
- arbitrate legal claims
- pay for housing or other living expenses (I don’t mean out of your own pocket but on behalf of your family member. I have found that some government subsidized housing require someone other than the occupant to act as the payee.)
- contract for caregiver services
- collect social security or disability benefits
Your family member can pick and choose which powers to grant.
A power of attorney can be set up to go into effect immediately upon signature or not until a doctor certifies the family member is incapacitated. Jerri’s was set up to go into effect immediately. This required a great deal of trust on her part. The language in the document prevents me from profiting from any decision I might make on her behalf. But beyond that, Jerri had to feel secure that I would only make decisions with her best interests at heart and that I would always consult her first as long as she is in her right mind.
How to obtain Power of Attorney
- Your family member can create and download a state-specific POA form from any number of legal websites. I used legalzoom.com. If you create the document on your family member’s behalf, remember to fill in the blanks online from their perspective. Most websites charge for creation of the document but it is significantly less than what you’d pay an attorney. It’s currently about $35 at Legalzoom.
- Review the document with your family member while they are in their right mind.
- Your family member grants power of attorney by signing the document in the presence of a notary public. Some states may require additional witnesses. Legalzoom will tell you what’s required in your state.
- Some states require you to file the notarized POA with your county recorder’s office. North Carolina is one of them and we recorded the Power of Attorney with the Register of Deeds office. Since many counties make PDFs of recorded documents available online, this allows easy access for anyone you are dealing with who needs to see proof of POA.
- As long as she is mentally competent, your family member can revoke POA at any time. She has to do this in writing, signed in front of a notary. If the POA was filed at the county recorder’s office, the revocation must also be filed at the same place.
First and foremost, your family member has to be of “sound mind” to grant Power of Attorney. She must understand what she will be signing and what it does. She must sign by choice and not due to pressure. This can be a challenge for those with mental illness who struggle with stability.
Jerri has good days and bad days. When I first began talking to her about moving to Durham, I explained the power of attorney concept and why I felt it was important for her to grant it to me. On a good day, Jerri realizes how out of it she can be on a bad day. She acknowledged that she struggles to pay her bills on time. The day she signed the document was a bad day for her. She was slipping out of right-mindedness and experiencing paranoia. As we stood before the notary public, Jerri began to question why she was signing the power of attorney. At one point, the notary asked if she was being pressured to sign. It was extremely awkward and I had to remind myself that the notary doesn’t know me and was right to try and protect Jerri from a potentially unscrupulous relative. The question, fortunately, triggered something within her and she said, “No, I need to do this. My sister is helping me.”
Having POA does not make you financially obligated to pay your family member’s debts if she doesn’t have the money to do so. POA allows you to make decisions about use of her financial resources – it does not require you to commit your own on her behalf.
I’m sharing this information because sometimes I think the thing we lack the most as caregivers, advocates, and supporters of family members with mental illness is practical know-how. When we do figure out how to do something, we need to share the knowledge. What have you figured out that the rest of us need to know?