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Timing Is Everything: When Powers of Attorney Aren’t Bulletproof
In the previous blog, we looked at the basics of financial and medical powers of attorney. Today, we’re going to look at how these documents are not as straightforward as you think, courtesy of a case heard by the South Carolina Court of Appeals, Stott v White Oak Manor, Inc. (read it here).
Facts and Background
Jolly P Davis (Decedent) was taken to Spartanburg Regional Medical Center on December 22, 2012 by EMS due to dropping oxygen saturation levels. Less than two weeks later, he was transferred to White Oak Manor for rehabilitation and care. Upon admission, White Oak found that he possessed “intact mental functioning” and was able to correctly answer questions about his age, location, the current date, and so on. Over the next couple weeks, he was transferred between the two facilities several times until he died on January 16, 2013.
Leading up to this, Decedent’s niece, Hilda Stott, was named as the agent in a durable POA for finance and a durable HPOA for Decedent in documents executed May 11, 2012. (A durable POA remains in effect even when the principal is incapacitated, so the agent can make decisions when the principal is, for example, in a coma or suffering from dementia.)
When Decedent was admitted to White Oak, Stott signed papers on her uncle’s behalf, including an Arbitration Agreement. The durable POA for finance was recorded on January 8, 2013, six days after Decedent was admitted to White Oak. The durable HPOA was never recorded. (As a reminder, South Carolina law requires that a POA, but not an HPOA, be recorded with the county in order for an agent to exercise their powers after the principal becomes incapacitated.)
On December 16, 2015, Stott filed a wrongful death suit against White Oak, alleging Decedent was “overmedicated and dehydrated,” which led to his death. White Oak filed a motion to compel arbitration based on the Arbitration Agreement that Stott had signed.
The Circuit Court’s Findings
The case when to the circuit court. Stott argued that even though she signed the Arbitration Agreement on behalf of Decedent, she actually did not have the authority to do so under the durable POA for finance and therefore was not bound to the Arbitration Agreement.
White Oak argued but the court ultimately sided with Stott, finding that (1) Decedent had full capacity to sign the Arbitration Agreement at the time of admission, (2) the durable POA for finance did not become effective until after the Arbitration Agreement was signed because it hadn’t been recorded in time, and (3) the durable HPOA also didn’t authorize Stott to sign the Arbitration Agreement because Decedent was competent when it was signed.
White Oak appealed.
The Effectiveness of the Durable POA for Finance
Here’s where things get rather complicated. Stott signed the Arbitration Agreement on January 2, 2013, but didn’t record the durable POA for finance until January 8, 2013. She argued that she didn’t have the authority to sign the Arbitration Agreement on Decedent’s behalf on the 2nd. But, White Oak noted, the agreement contained an opt-out clause giving the signer a limited time period in which to opt out of the agreement, after which the agreement “will remain and continue in full force and effect.” (Emphasis added by the SC Court of Appeals.) White Oak argued that because the agreement didn’t become binding until the opt-out period expired on January 19, 2013, Stott did, in fact, have the authority to sign it because by then, the durable POA for finance had been recorded – 11 days earlier.
The Court of Appeals disagreed, citing the language used in the opt-out clause. It was stated so that the party would “no longer” be bound by it, and after the opt-out window closed, it would “remain and continue” – language indicating that the agreement was in effect the entire time during the opt-out window. Therefore, because the durable POA for finance had not been recorded by the time she signed the Arbitration Agreement, Stott did not have the power to sign it on Decedent’s behalf.
The Effectiveness of the Durable HPOA
The other issue the Court looked at was whether Stott had the authority to sign the Arbitration Agreement based on a valid durable HPOA. White Oak argued that she did; the Court disagreed.
That’s because Decedent’s durable HPOA contained a provision entitled “EFFECTIVE DATE AND DURABILITY” that stated it would become “effective upon, and only during, any period of mental incompetence.” In other words, it was a springing POA, discussed in the previous blog, which only becomes effective once the principal becomes incapacitated.
White Oak’s own evaluation of Decedent found him to be mentally intact with full capacity upon admission and at the time Stott signed the Arbitration Agreement. Therefore, the Court concludes, the durable HPOA was also not effective to authorize Stott to sign the agreement on her uncle’s behalf.
In short, the Arbitration Agreement is invalid and White Oak cannot compel arbitration of Stott’s claims of wrongful death and survival actions.
Confusion and Lack of Clarity
In this case, the powers of attorney were executed well in advance of any need for them. They were both clear in their intentions, and the durable HPOA even used the language provided by statute. Neither POA was disputed. Decedent’s mental capacity was not called into question by White Oak Manor. And still, confusion occurred regarding whether the agent had authority to sign for the principal.
This case illustrates how complex matters of estate planning can be, even when they appear simple on the surface. This is why it’s so important to work with an experienced estate planning attorney like Gem McDowell to handle your estate planning. Gem has over 25 years of experience helping individuals and families with estate planning in South Carolina. Call him and his associates at the Gem McDowell Law Group in Mt. Pleasant, SC today at 843-284-1021 to schedule a free consultation to discuss your estate planning needs.