“Whenever the President transmits to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives his written declaration that he is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, and until he transmits to them a written declaration to the contrary, such powers and duties shall be discharged by the Vice President as Acting President.”
In December of 1963, as America mourned the assignation of John F. Kennedy, Birch Bayh , the young United States Senator from Terre Haute, Indiana, introduced an amendment to the Constitution aimed at curing its dangerously vague language on vice-presidential succession and presidential disability. One of the many contingencies it aimed to address was, what happens if the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office?
With the recent hospitalization of the current President after his diagnosis of Covid-19, much of the water cooler buzz, the nightly news, and social media was atwitter with questions surrounding the 25th and whether it would be evoked.
Such declarations are rare, but not uncommon. Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush each transferred power using 25 during pre-planned surgeries. But while we do not know, as of yet, if the White House counsel drafted language affording the transfer of power to the Vice-President (albeit temporarily) were the President’s health to take a turn, it did get us thinking that such a document could be akin to the most important Power of Attorney in the world.
In Ontario, the subject of a living will often comes up in similar circumstances. But the term “living will” is not used in any formal way. We have written about living wills here in the past. A more common term is advance directive: a document that clearly outlines your treatment and personal care wishes.
But whether you call it a living will or advance directive, they are not the same as a Power of Attorney (POA): a legal document in which you name a specific person to make decisions on your behalf. While an advance directive can form part of your POA for personal care, so your attorney is aware of your wishes, it does not carry the same weight with the court.
Finally, while we may not know whether the president executed a document under the 25th Amendment or if one was even drafted, it is a good reminder that even if our own illness or temporary absence does not pose a national security risk, outlining our wishes about care is always a capital idea.
Thanks for reading.
Ian Hull and Daniel Enright
Natalia Angelini recently blogged about some helpful tips from LawPRO on how to minimize the risk when virtually witnessing Wills and powers of attorney. On April 24, LawPRO posted another helpful article about the risks of “renting out” your signature as a virtual witness.
The emergency legislation requires that one of the witnesses to a Will that is executed by means of audio-visual communication technology (which now temporarily meets the Succession Law Reform Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. S.26 requirement that the testator and witnesses be “in the presence of” each other), be a Law Society licensee. This means that some of us may be asked to be witnesses to a Will or power of attorney that we did not prepare ourselves. However, as LawPRO points out, simply being a witness does not necessarily mean that we will not be held responsible if there are problems with the Will or power of attorney.
Some of the issues that may arise could include the following:
- Problems with the Will or power of attorney not being executed properly, in accordance with the requirements for due execution and the specific requirements of virtual execution pursuant to the temporary legislation.
- The Will or power of attorney not reflecting the testator or grantor’s wishes. This may arise if a testator or grantor prepares their own Will or power of attorney from an online service or kit, resulting in a document that is likely not tailored to the testator or grantor’s particular situation, financial circumstances, and wishes.
- Technical errors in the document, such as the omission of a residue clause, which can drastically impact the distribution of the testator’s assets.
LawPRO has provided some tips for how to protect yourself if you are asked to be a witness to a Will or power of attorney that you did not prepare (although the tips seem equally applicable if you did prepare the document in question):
- Take detailed notes.
- Send a reporting letter following the execution of the document and confirm the scope of your retainer.
- Record the signing (with the client’s permission).
You may also consider having the testator or grantor sign a limited retainer agreement, before you witness the Will or power of attorney, which explicitly sets out that you have been engaged only for the purpose of witnessing the document, and not to review it or provide any legal advice.
Thanks for reading, and stay safe!
These other blog posts may also be of interest:
As of April 7, Wills can be witnessed by video conference.
As you are aware, two witnesses must be “in the presence of” the testator when a typed Will is signed. This has historically required physical presence.
The new Emergency Order now confirms that the “presence” may be by “audio-visual communication technology”.
Importantly, at least 1 of the 2 witnesses must be a licensee of the Law Society of Ontario.
In light of these changes, we, together with Hull e-State Planner, have created a suggested Video Execution Checklist to use for execution of wills in these circumstances.
Click here to access the Checklist and further information about the Emergency Order.
Feel free to reach out with any questions,
In Ontario, we are fortunate to have the ability to execute powers of attorney in respect of our property and our health care. I recently learned that Jersey, in the Channel Islands, has only lately gained the ability to execute a “Lasting Power of Attorney” to record their decisions and intentions in respect of their assets and care. On that note, I thought I would take the opportunity to provide a quick reminder of the importance of executing powers of attorney, and the possible consequences of not doing so.
Powers of attorney in Ontario are governed mainly by the Substitute Decisions Act, 1992, S.O. 1992, c. 30 (the “SDA”). The SDA sets out, among other things, the requirements for powers of attorney, the requisite capacity to grant a power of attorney, and the powers and duties of attorneys. There are two types of powers of attorney: powers of attorney for personal care (dealing with your health, medical care, and other matters related to your well-being) and powers of attorney for property (dealing with your property and financial matters). Generally, powers of attorney will come into play if you become incapable of managing your property or personal care, respectively, but it is also possible to grant a power of attorney for property that is effective immediately (that is, not conditional upon later incapacity).
What Happens if I Don’t Execute Powers of Attorney?
If you do not execute powers of attorney, and you never lose capacity, you may never realize how important they are. However, as we have blogged about previously, as our population begins to live longer, there has been an increase in dementia and other aging-related conditions associated with cognitive decline, meaning that the use and activation of powers of attorney is increasing.
Taking the step of executing powers of attorney means that you have the chance to make your own decision regarding who will handle your affairs in the event that you are no longer capable. If you become incapable, and have not named an attorney for property or personal care, it is open (and may become necessary, depending on your circumstances) for an individual to bring an application seeking to be appointed as your guardian for property or personal care, thus allowing them to act as your substitute decision-maker. The application process requires that notice be given to certain people (including certain family members), and if someone disagrees with the appointment of the proposed guardian, they may contest the guardianship—but the key detail to remember is that the ability to make the decision is taken away from you.
A guardianship application can also be brought if a person has executed a power of attorney, but the existence of a power of attorney will be an important factor for the court’s consideration: pursuant to the SDA, if the court is satisfied that there is an alternative course of action that is less restrictive of the person’s decision-making rights, the court shall not appoint a guardian.
Naming someone to act on your behalf with respect to your property and personal care is a big decision. It is almost certain that you are in the best position to make a determination as to who you want acting for you in this regard. We should all take the opportunity to exercise our own decision-making rights, to choose the person that we want to play the important role of attorney, and not leave it up to others to make this decision for us.
Thanks for reading,
Other blog posts that you may enjoy:
The results of a recent study published in the American Medical Association Oncology Journal suggest that more patients with cancer are obtaining Continuing Powers of Attorney for Property than in the past. Approximately 74% of Americans facing cancer have a Power of Attorney for Property in place. However, while not considered statistically significant, the use of Powers of Attorney for Personal Care and frequency of discussion with respect to end-of-life preferences have actually become less prevalent in recent years, with rates of only 40% (down from 49% in 2000) and 60% (down from 68%), respectively.
Older studies have suggested that physicians should re-evaluate a patient’s mental capacity after significant changes in medication, infection, metabolic disturbances, or diagnosis with a new medical problem, including cancer diagnosis and treatment, which may contribute to changes to mental capacity. While mental capacity is time and task-specific and will require analysis on a case-by-case basis, memory and concentration problems are frequently linked to certain chemotherapy regimens. Some reports suggest that oncology patients may experience the same mental impairment that is often seen at increased rates within the aging population. Further, the cognitive difficulty that is often referred to as “chemo fog” is believed to become more debilitating with the intensity of the chemotherapy. Other cancer treatments, including radiation and surgery, are believed to be less likely to influence a patient’s mental capacity, but medications, such as narcotic painkillers, that may be used to address treatment side effects can nevertheless impact lucidity and the understanding of medical procedures to which the patient’s consent is required. Further, when cancer originates or metastasizes within the brain, neurological functioning may be more likely to become compromised, whether temporarily or for the long term.
The presence of powers of attorney within the cancer community according to the study conducted by Johns Hopkins School of Medicine does not differ greatly from the estimate of 71% of Canadians that have Powers of Attorney in place. Generally, it is a good idea to ensure that individuals of all ages take the time to consider an incapacity plan and to have Power of Attorney documents prepared. However, cancer patients may be more likely than others to have to make important decisions between different treatment options. In situations where diminished capacity may become a more likely scenario due to illness (or related treatment) or age, arrangements should be made to ensure that, if one becomes incapable of making important decisions him or herself, someone who can be trusted is authorized and prepared to do so on their behalf.
Thank you for reading.
As an aging society, we are likely to see an increase in issues surrounding abuse of our elderly. Just simply take a look at our recent estate and trust literature and you will notice that there has been an increase in articles about elder law.
Recently, I read an article labeled “Putting the Brakes on POA Fraud.” This article can be found in Briefly Speaking which is the official magazine of the Ontario Bar Association. The article is authored by David Freedman, who is an associate professor at Queen’s University faculty of Law. In his article, Professor Freedman looks at the common situation in which elder abuse is likely to occur wherein he states: “The prototypical example is the situation in which the elderly parent resides with one child who is to take principal responsibility for the parent’s care and who has been given a POA by the parent over his or her assets. Perhaps it is the siblings or a third-party care-giver who complains about the exercise or non-exercise of the POA, but there are many cases in which the assets are misappropriated.” Of course there is a strong public interest in protecting our elderly against financial exploitation, but what can we do?
For those of us who practice in this area of the law, how often have we heard of a family member approaching the police to make a complaint about an elderly person who has been taken advantage of and being told “it’s a civil matter”? False. Section 331 of the Criminal Code of Canada addresses the issue of “Theft by a Person Holding a Power of Attorney.” In addition to the Criminal Code, there are civil remedies that are founded on the principles of restitution. Professor Freedman states that regardless of the type of case (criminal or civil) “the interest is the same, stripping the wrong-doer of any illicit gain and restoring the victim as much as it is possible to do in the circumstances.”
Thank you for reading,