Attorney in Fact and Power of Attorney Decision Making

Surprisingly, there is very little statutory or case law discussing:

-Attorney in fact decision making under a power of attorney document;

-When the power of attorney becomes effective;

-If the principal is making the decisions;

-When is the named attorney in fact actually acting as an attorney in fact under the power of attorney;

-Is the attorney in fact a fiduciary, and if he or she is actually acting as a fiduciary, for what is he or she a fiduciary;

-Can someone be acting as a fiduciary in some situations or with respect to some issues and decisions, but at the same time not for other situations, issues and decisions (and related, the principal doesn’t necessarily lose decision making over all situations, issues and decisions, right?); and

-The specifics of whether acting as a fiduciary in a particular situation does or does not switch the burden of proof, and if it does, in what manner, to what extent, and for what events or actions is the burden of proof switched?

These are all important issues, and they are becoming more important. Cases that deal with powers of attorney or even these issues usually don’t go into detail, but many times simply find in a conclusory fashion that someone was a fiduciary so for all purposes and for all events or actions the burden of proof is shifted, and all depending on the judgment of the trier of fact which is often a single judge. I submit that this approach is way to simplistic, conclusory and lacking in critical legal analysis.

The California Probate Code provides that agency law applies to power of attorney, attorney in fact, and principal issues, unless the Probate Code contains a provision that states otherwise or that directly addresses the issue at hand. I very seldom hear discussions in court about statutes that address powers of attorney, or actions and responsibilities and decision making thereunder. The following are a couple of those statutes.

California Probate Code Section 4234 – (a) To the extent reasonably practicable under the circumstances, an attorney-in-fact has a duty to keep in regular contact with the principal, to communicate with the principal, and to follow the instructions of the principal.

California Probate Code Section 4657 – A patient is presumed to have the capacity to make a health care decision, to give or revoke an advance health care directive, and to designate or disqualify a surrogate. This presumption is a presumption affecting the burden of proof.

California Probate Code Section 4684 – An agent shall make a health care decision in accordance with the principal’s individual health care instructions, if any, and other wishes to the extent known to the agent. Otherwise, the agent shall make the decision in accordance with the agent’s determination of the principal’s best interest. In determining the principal’s best interest, the agent shall consider the principal’s personal values to the extent known to the agent.

As you can see, the attorney in fact, assuming that he or she is in fact acting under the power of attorney and as an attorney in fact for the specific situation, issue or action at hand, should be communicating with the principal about important issues and the principal’s wishes and decisions with respect to those issues. And there is or might be an actual or implied presumption that the principal has decision making capacity and is making the decision in that circumstance.

Dave Tate, Esq., San Francisco and throughout California,