A simple Google search will turn up several sites that provide free or inexpensive legal forms. But just because something is easy does not necessarily mean that it’s the right thing to do. The Superior Court of Pennsylvania recently handed down a decision that showed how dangerous online power of attorney forms could be. In Stecker, et al. v. Goosley, et al., a do-it-yourself legal form did more harm than good.
A Short History of the Case
In her 80s, Mercedes Goosley lived in her own home in Pennsylvania. She signed an online power of attorney form naming her son Joseph her agent in 2013. Joseph immediately began acting on her behalf.
As his mother’s agent under the online power of attorney, Joseph sold his mother’s home in 2018. She had previously moved into a nursing facility. Joseph also instructed his brother William to move out of the house by the closing scheduled for March 15, 2018.
However, Ms. Goosley signed a deed transferring the home to William on February 27, 2018.
The Santos family (the “Buyers”) filed a complaint against Ms. Goosley, Joseph, and William. In his motion for summary judgment, William argued that Joseph did not have the authority to sell their mother’s home or even act as her agent. One of the primary issues involved the online power of attorney form.
Powers of attorney can be immediate or springing. A springing power of attorney only takes effect when the person who signed the document becomes incapacitated. Proof of incapacity is required before the agent has the authority to act.
Unfortunately, the online power of attorney form that Joseph had his mother sign was a springing power of attorney. William argued that Joseph did not have any authority because he had never established his mother’s incapacity.
How the Appeals Court Ruled on Stecker, et al. v. Goosley, et al.
The trial court held a non-jury trial in 2020 and:
- ruled that the deed transferring the property to William was null and void; and
- granted “equitable remedy of specific performance” to the buyers.
William appealed the trial court’s opinion for several reasons. Among other things, he claimed that Joseph did not have the authority to act as their mother’s agent. Specifically, William alleged that:
“(2) the power of attorney only became effective upon a physician’s written determination that Mercedes had become incapacitated or disabled, which did not occur; and …”
However, the appeals court ruled that Ms. Goosley clearly had intended for Joseph to act as her agent when she signed the online power of attorney form in 2013. It’s just unfortunate that the parties did not understand the consequences of using the online form.
Understanding Where Online Power of Attorney Forms Go Wrong
An online power of attorney form cannot analyze your unique situation to provide the right solutions. The consumer is left to decide which type of power of attorney is the right one.
Some power of attorney forms may not even consider individual state laws. For example, you might choose a power of attorney based on California law instead of Pennsylvania law. Since each state has its own laws, using the online power of attorney may result in unintended and often unpleasant consequences.
Beware of Online Power of Attorney Forms
Stecker, et al. vs. Goosley, et al. started, in part, with the decision to use an online power of attorney form. By the time the Superior Court ruled, all the parties had gone to court and paid legal fees for years. Having an attorney draw up the power of attorney would have been far less expensive.
Had Joseph and Mercedes retained competent counsel he could have discussed the different options available for power of attorney. He could have discussed whether using a springing power of attorney was the correct choice for their circumstances, and if so, what to do to properly implement the power of attorney.
Attorney Robert Slutsky was one of the first lawyers in Pennsylvania to focus on elder law issues, including Medicaid. Since 1992, he has helped countless people find solutions that work for their individual situations.
Please give us a call at (610) 940-0650 or schedule a consultation on our website. We help clients throughout Chester, Delaware, Montgomery, Bucks, and Philadelphia Counties, and beyond.
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