If I'm POA, what happens after my non-family loved one dies with no will?

A fellow caregiver asked...

I am power of attorney over someone who is not related, but I care about very much, and was the best choice for. I have, in the last few months, dealt with the banks and her finances to assure her funds are what/how/where they need to be. Her health has, seemingly overnight, changed, and health-care personnel feel she could face demise at any point now. I know that the POA ends upon death, so what process is there, at that point, to access the funds in her account(s)? These will be for care and death provisions, and there is no documentation or trust/will, the only legal document being this POA listing myself.

Expert Answer

Barbara Repa, a Caring.com senior editor, is an attorney, a journalist specializing in aging issues, and the author of Your Rights in the Workplace (Nolo), now in its 10th edition.

You are conscientious"”and a good and loyal soul"”to care about helping to wind up your friend's final accounts after her death. And you are right to intuit that the matter may not be as simple as it seems it should be.

When a person dies without a will or trust naming a person to pay final debts and expenses and distribute any remaining assets"”then state law determines who should be appointed to serve. This is true even though there is not much property to divide, but mostly bills and final expenses to be paid. The local probate court will appoint the person who is empowered to act"”and sometimes, the truth is that person may not be the best choice, but is the one set out in the law's hierarchy.

California's law, for example, is typical. It provides a hierarchical list of 18 "types" of people who should be appointed to serve"”with a surviving spouse or domestic partner in the number 1 position, followed by relatives in increasingly distant relation and ending with "any other person" who comes even after creditors.

Georgia law, as another example, doesn't provide this level of detail, but directs that the people who are entitled to take any property under state law"”generally, those related in some way"”should unanimously agree to appoint someone as personal representative.

So the long and short of it is that your right to act is determined by state law and whether there are other people who are likely to contest your appointment. You can find out the letter of the law by searching the deceased's person's state and "probate" and "intestate succession" and "personal representative." Or call the probate court and hope for a helpful soul to give you some direction about local requirements.