Banks shouldn’t blindly trust power of attorney papers
By Natalie Serafini, Opinions Editor
I recently read a CBC news story about senior citizens who had been denied service at Canadian banks. Ok, that immediately sounds bad—especially if you picture a poor old soul who doesn’t have the funds for their cache of Werther’s Originals—but allow me to explain: house-ridden senior citizens often sign power of attorney over to someone else to help with decisions and tasks. Apparently an issue in elderly banking is that these people are denied services if the documents certifying power of attorney aren’t completely legitimate. The power of attorney documents haven’t necessarily been forged, but if they don’t meet the bank’s legal standards, they’ll be denied.
The senior citizens aren’t being denied service, though. What’s being denied is the validity of power of attorney documents which aren’t quite up to snuff.
Let’s pause and consider a rather widespread issue in the senior citizen community: financial elder abuse. This is when an elderly person is scammed or manipulated into giving away large sums of money. Sometimes the swindlers are strangers, but they can also be friends, family, and those with power of attorney.
I don’t imagine the bank is yukking it up over forcing some senior citizen to go without money. Instead, it seems like the banks are safeguarding against older people unwittingly handing pools of money over to an untrustworthy person. I’d rather know that banks have a certain standard and that they don’t accept power of attorney papers willy nilly. Even if it means making it more difficult for the senior citizens, it’s better than papers that could (a) give power of attorney to an untrustworthy person, (b) illegitimately and perhaps illegally grant power of attorney, and (c) open the door for more substandard, illegitimate papers. When it comes to legal documents, I’d say it’s better to only accept legitimate ones.
Susan Eng of the Canadian Association of Retired Persons (CARP) argues that “At some point [the banks] have to be reasonable. They have to accept the word of a lawyer who after all is going to put his or her license on the line by signing the [power of attorney] document.” Like I said before, I’d rather banks and businesses not be flexible when it comes to legal documents. Besides which, some of the power of attorney papers are apparently vague, undated, and missing signatures. Sounds to me like a very good reason to not trust the lawyer who prepared those documents. If they don’t know how to do their job, perhaps they aren’t entirely credible in vouching for another person’s trustworthiness. Even if they’re putting their license on the line, that’s not a sure fire guarantee that the documents can be trusted.
The whole situation sucks, and perhaps these banks could have been clearer about what the clients needed to do to access their own money. But how might this story have gone differently if the banks consistently accepted substandard power of attorney papers? Would there be stories of senior citizens who had unwittingly handed over thousands of dollars? Would the banks be at fault because they accepted illegitimate documents? Some senior citizens are fortunate to have genuinely beneficent, responsible family members who honestly care for them. For the senior citizens who are victimized by coercion, manipulation, and scamming, I think that it’s best that these policies remain in place.
Illustration by Oliver McTavish Wisden.