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What exactly is a power of attorney? If a person doesn’t officially have this document/designation, wouldn’t his spouse or children automatically be in charge of the deceased’s estate?


Power of attorney is the right to act on behalf of someone in legal or business matters, either for long periods and multiple purposes or for a single event like negotiating a contract. Power is generally granted through a written contract itself, although it is possible in some legal jurisdictions to grant power of attorney through an oral agreement and have it stand up in court. Many businesses or institutions will fail to honor an oral agreement for obvious reasons, though, and there is a widely invoked principle of law that holds that such agreements must be as formal as whatever acts are done by the people who have had the power conferred upon them. For instance, any contract or other agreement that must be entered into in writing stands a good chance of not being recognized if the person who is signing for someone else does not have written power of attorney.

In the case of a death, a person who has made a will typically names an executor. That’s the rough equivalent of granting power of attorney. If the person has not made a will or has made one and not named an executor, then a court is likely to step in and assign someone, called an administrator, to fill the role. In many cases the deceased person’s assets pass in an uncomplicated way and the administrator has an easy time of it; creditors are paid off, beneficiaries named in insurance policies or retirement accounts get what’s coming to them. In other cases, such as when there is a dispute among potential heirs or a creditor or someone else contests the way assets are disbursed, the administrator has his work cut out for him.
-Conrad de Aenlle