Close this search box.

Heir Sues Agent For Adding Beneficiaries To Bank Accounts

Print Article

JULY 23, 2001 VOLUME 9, NUMBER 4

Fae Powell had given her nephew Jackie Powell a power of attorney so that he could handle her financial affairs. Mr. Powell used that power of attorney to change over $600,000 worth of bank CDs into “payable on death” status, naming himself and other nephews and nieces as beneficiaries. Ms. Powell’s will, however, left her estate to her sister and others. Did Mr. Powell have the authority to make those changes in his aunt’s estate plan?

The question posed to the Nebraska courts was actually more complicated than that. In most states it is clear that a power of attorney does not give the agent (sometimes also referred to as the “attorney-in-fact”) authority to make gifts unless there is a specific provision in the document. But is changing accounts so that they pass automatically on death to someone else really a gift? After all, no transfer would occur until after Ms. Powell’s death, so it could be argued that her agent had made no gifts.

Ms. Powell’s situation was further complicated by her nephew’s insistence that she had specifically instructed him to make each change, and that he was simply signing her name to actions she was really directing herself. Of course, it would be difficult for him to prove that she gave him such instructions, unless she did so in the presence of neutral observers.

Ms. Powell’s sister Eleine Hampshire did not believe that Mr. Powell was carrying out the decedent’s instructions. She pointed out that if the changes had not been made she would have inherited nearly $80,000 from Ms. Powell’s estate, and so she sued Mr. Powell for fraud.

The Nebraska Court of Appeals threw Ms. Hampshire’s case out of court. The justices decided that the action should have been brought by Ms. Powell’s estate against her attorney-in-fact, and that Ms. Hampshire could not sue directly for the loss to the estate. Never mind that Mr. Powell was named as personal representative of the estate—that problem would have to be solved by someone seeking to disqualify him from serving in the probate court. Ms. Hampshire had simply filed her lawsuit improperly. Hampshire v. Powell, May 8, 2001.

The Nebraska court’s decision, based as it is on procedural grounds, fails to answer the underlying question: does an agent under a power of attorney have the authority to change beneficiary designations on accounts, life insurance and the like? Other cases have decided the question differently, depending on the individual facts in each instance. It would certainly be better to have the change in beneficiary designations signed by the individual herself, rather than by the agent. In Arizona the law is a little clearer: unless the power of attorney gives express authority to make such changes (and the authority is separately initialed on the form), they are probably invalid.

Stay up to date

Subscribe to our Newsletter to get our takes on some of the situations families, seniors, and individuals with disabilities find themselves in. These posts help guide you in the decision making process and point out helpful tips and nuances to take advantage of. Enter your email below to have our entries sent directly to your inbox!

Robert B. Fleming


Robert Fleming is a Fellow of both the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel and the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys. He has been certified as a Specialist in Estate and Trust Law by the State Bar of Arizona‘s Board of Legal Specialization, and he is also a Certified Elder Law Attorney by the National Elder Law Foundation. Robert has a long history of involvement in local, state and national organizations. He is most proud of his instrumental involvement in the Special Needs Alliance, the premier national organization for lawyers dealing with special needs trusts and planning.

Robert has two adult children, two young grandchildren and a wife of over fifty years. He is devoted to all of them. He is also very fond of Rosalind Franklin (his office companion corgi), and his homebound cat Muninn. He just likes people, their pets and their stories.

Elizabeth N.R. Friman


Elizabeth Noble Rollings Friman is a principal and licensed fiduciary at Fleming & Curti, PLC. Elizabeth enjoys estate planning and helping families navigate trust and probate administrations. She is passionate about the fiduciary work that she performs as a trustee, personal representative, guardian, and conservator. Elizabeth works with CPAs, financial professionals, case managers, and medical providers to tailor solutions to complex family challenges. Elizabeth is often called upon to serve as a neutral party so that families can avoid protracted legal conflict. Elizabeth relies on the expertise of her team at Fleming & Curti, and as the Firm approaches its third decade, she is proud of the culture of care and consideration that the Firm embodies. Finding workable solutions to sensitive and complex family challenges is something that Elizabeth and the Fleming & Curti team do well.

Amy F. Matheson


Amy Farrell Matheson has worked as an attorney at Fleming & Curti since 2006. A member of the Southern Arizona Estate Planning Council, she is primarily responsible for estate planning and probate matters.

Amy graduated from Wellesley College with a double major in political science and English. She is an honors graduate of Suffolk University Law School and has been admitted to practice in Arizona, Massachusetts, New York, and the District of Columbia.

Prior to joining Fleming & Curti, Amy worked for American Public Television in Boston, and with the international trade group at White & Case, LLP, in Washington, D.C.

Amy’s husband, Tom, is an astronomer at NOIRLab and the Head of Time Domain Services, whose main project is ANTARES. Sadly, this does not involve actual time travel. Amy’s twin daughters are high school students; Finn, her Irish Red and White Setter, remains a puppy at heart.

Famous people's wills

Matthew M. Mansour


Matthew is a law clerk who recently earned his law degree from the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law. His undergraduate degree is in psychology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Matthew has had a passion for advocacy in the Tucson community since his time as a law student representative in the Workers’ Rights Clinic. He also has worked in both the Pima County Attorney’s Office and the Pima County Public Defender’s Office. He enjoys playing basketball, caring for his cat, and listening to audiobooks narrated by the authors.