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Don’t bank on it – problems with power of attorney requests

Some bank staff are letting people down when it comes to enabling them to access and operate accounts on behalf of family members who, due to age or illness, are no longer able to do so themselves.

This worrying trend comes despite special guidelines devised by the Financial Ombudsman Service to help financial institutions get it right in relation to 'powers of attorney' which give someone the legal power to manage another's finances.

Complaints about bank staff to the Financial Ombudsman rose from 71 in 2010 to 178 in 2015, the highest number on record. The number of complaints upheld also more than doubled from 35 in 2010 to 79.

What is going wrong?

Banks have a legal obligation to honour powers of attorney, but in practise many make it difficult, generally because of lack of training or ignorance.

Once a lasting power of attorney has been registered by the Office of the Public Guardian the attorney can act in the interests of the donor (the person who has appointed them) and part of this is registering it at the bank where their relative holds their account.

This is where the problems often start. Bank staff are not always sure what documentation is needed, refuse to accept what is being offered, pass documents from department to department or insist on speaking to the donor despite them often being unwell or unable.

And this can lead to delays and added stress for relatives at an often already upsetting time.

How to avoid problems.

The Financial Ombudsman Services advises the following when visiting a bank or financial institution about a power of attorney:

DO

  • Book an appointment to speak to a member of staff. Explain that you need to register a power of attorney and ask them what documents you need to bring in;
  • Tell the bank anything they might need to know that'll make it easier for them to help you. If you're concerned about the mental capacity of the person you're acting for, it make sense to let them know;
  • Explain if there are any financial matters that might mean you need to get the power of attorney processed urgently. Though the bank should not skip any steps, they may be able to help you avoid a difficult situation.

DON'T

  • Hand over original copies of your documents. If the staff member is unsure, show them guidance from the Financial Ombudsman Service and ask them to contact their staff helpline or a manager. The ombudsman also has guidance for banks and businesses with helpful advice they can refer to;
  • Get upset. Managing someone's finances can be difficult, especially if they're losing their mental capacity. But if you find you're hitting a brick wall, ask if you can speak to the manager or call the Office of the Public Guardian on 0300 456 0300. They can explain to you and the bank what they should be doing.