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Joan Rivers' death a high-profile exercise of power of attorney

When comedian Joan Rivers went into cardiac and respiratory arrest during an outpatient procedure, the public vigil began. For the following six days, it felt as if news outlets reported on her condition hourly. While everyone outside of her hospital room waited for a change in Joan's condition, her daughter Melissa was facing a difficult decision.

According to a variety of news sources, Joan had drawn up a durable power of attorney that named her only child, Melissa, as her agent. It would be up to Melissa, the reports said, to make any decisions about her mother's care -- including the decision to remove the 81-year-old entertainer from life support.

Melissa did just that, and, on Sept. 4, her mother passed away.

Some entertainment news sites actually reported that Melissa had her mother's "power of attorney," and that gave Melissa the authority to "pull the plug." There's a problem with that statement that goes beyond the callous euphemism for ending life support for a loved one.

Depending on where the power of attorney had been executed, Melissa's authority could have ended when Joan became incapacitated. Only a durable power of attorney would remain in effect during Joan's incapacity and even after her death. That one word makes such a big difference in how the power of attorney operates that some states, including Pennsylvania, have laws that stipulate that a regular power of attorney is presumed to be a durable power of attorney unless otherwise indicated.

The person granting the power of attorney (the "principal") can give anyone the authority to do just about anything by executing a power of attorney document. Generally, the responsibilities and authorities outlined in the document pass to the person designated by the principal (the "agent") the moment the document is signed. In some cases, the power of attorney goes into effect when some specific event occurs -- say, when the principal is declared incompetent by a court or is determined to be incapacitated by the principal's treating physician.

Not every power of attorney turns over full control of all of the principal's property, though. We will explain more next week.

Source: Communities Digital News, "Melissa's hardest decision: End life support for Joan Rivers," Paul Samakow, Sept. 7, 2014

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