When organizing your Massachusetts will and estate, you may wonder about the extent of the powers and responsibilities given to those with titles like attorney-in-fact, health care proxy, trustee, guardian, or conservator. Estate planning includes assigning responsibility to someone in the course of your lifetime in the event you are unable to handle your own affairs. One of the documents you may use is a Power of Attorney. The Commonwealth Appeals Court recently issued a decision in Petriello v. Indresano (14-P-135) that reviewed whether or not the woman who acted as a health care proxy agent, and eventual designated agent with power of attorney, had the right to apply for harassment prevention orders against the children of her deceased domestic partner of 45 years. The Appeals Court ruled that a Power of Attorney can apply for the orders on the person’s behalf but ultimately decided to remand the case on another issue.
In Petriello, the court discussed the effect of a written power of attorney, which they considered to be a legal issue and not one for the jury to determine. Case law established that the court, when evaluating a power of attorney document, must put themselves in the place of the parties and give the words in the instrument their plain and ordinary meaning. A power of attorney is read like any other contract and is interpreted as a whole with effect given to all the provisions to enact its overall purpose. As the court reviewed the power of attorney instrument in Petriello, they felt the document gave explicit authority to the agent to “exercise or perform any act, power, duty, right or obligation” that the woman had, as if she was personally present. The power of attorney document granted the agent full authority and was executed soon after she designated her as her health care agent and in the midst of the conflict with her deceased domestic partner’s family.
The events that led to this dispute were based in a domestic relationship that lasted over 40 years. The woman lived in a domestic partnership for 45 years. She initially had the eldest son and the next son as her health care proxy and alternate. After her partner’s death, she moved to a property left in trust to her by her deceased partner, but she began experiencing tensions between herself and the deceased partner’s children.
She changed her health care proxy to the woman named as the plaintiff in the suit of discussion. As the relationships with the children continue to deteriorate, she relied heavily upon her health care proxy, and she eventually designated her an agent to act as power of attorney. Several discussions were held between the proxy and health care providers about the appropriate course of action with the children, since it was causing the woman a lot of additional stress. It was a doctor who suggested the pursuit of the harassment prevention order. The court, while it felt that the proxy was properly executing the power of attorney authority given to her, did not feel that the actions described of the children rose to the level of harassment expected in that particular type of order under G.L. 258, Sec. 3 and remanded the case back to the district court for further consideration.
As Petriello shows, it is important to have a clear, properly written document that communicates your wishes, which will greatly assist all parties and fact-finders. The Massachusetts estate planning attorneys at the Law Office of James K. Meehan have the experience you need to help you with your estate. Call today for a free consultation at 508.822.6600.
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