By Lizann Lightfoot
Setting: North Carolina. It was the week before my husband’s fifth deployment. His to-do list was a mile long, and he was busy setting out gear while I was packing a to-go bag for the hospital. I would deliver our third baby soon after he left. He looked at his list of required paperwork and sighed.
“Do you really need a Power of Attorney?” he asked me.
I stared at him in shock. Going into a deployment without a Power of Attorney (POA) seemed as crazy to me as going on a camping trip without a tent.
“YES!” I shouted. “I definitely do. I have to enroll the baby in DEERS.”
“Oh yeah, that’s true,” he mumbled. He wasn’t thrilled to squeeze in a trip to the base legal office, but he made it happen. I was grateful because I had to use that POA several times while he was deployed.
Fast forward a few years. Setting: California. We lived on the other side of the country, far from any family members. We had just arrived on base a month ago, so we hardly knew anyone. And he was already preparing to deploy again. For the first time, he was going on a non-combat deployment. I wasn’t worried about his safety. I was more worried about what might happen to me.
“What if I get into a car accident while you are gone?” I asked him. “Who would pick the kids up from school if I was at the hospital? It would be a day or two before the grandparents could fly out here.”
“Don’t worry,” he reassured me. “We have paperwork to take care of that. It’s called a Family Care Plan.”
These two documents, the POA and Family Care Plan, are essential for any service member preparing to deploy. A Power of Attorney gives someone else your authority to make financial and legal decisions for you. For example, a service member can designate someone to continue making payments on their home or vehicle while he or she is deployed. The Family Care Plan dictates who will be the temporary and long-term caregiver of your children (or pets) if anything happens to the caregiver during the deployment. Usually, service members with dependents are required to complete these documents as part of their deployment preparation, but they may fill it out without mentioning it to their spouse. That’s why military spouses need to talk to their service member before deployment, and discuss these important legal documents.
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A Power of Attorney comes in two different versions
There is a “General Power of Attorney” that allows a service member to name one person to make decisions on their behalf. The designated person can have access to the bank accounts and bills, so obviously it has to be someone you trust. For a military spouse, the POA acts as the military member’s signature or presence for situations where they are usually required to be present in person. Unfortunately, the general POA is not very useful because so many banks and financial institutions don’t consider it specific enough to give someone access to the service member’s account. Often, a bank wants the service member to fill out paperwork specific to that bank, and have it notarized. This should obviously be done before deployment, otherwise you run into the awkward situation of trying to mail time-sensitive tax documents to someone deployed to a desert. I once had to get a notarized form with my husband’s signature just to update the mailing address on his bank account. Not fun.
On base, many situations call for a “Specific Power of Attorney” for the military spouse. For example, if they need to renew their ID card or replace a lost card, they usually need to be accompanied by their military sponsor. A specific POA allows them to do this without the deployed spouse. A specific POA is also needed to make decisions about moving out or moving into base housing, sell a vehicle in the service member’s name, or register a new baby for benefits in DEERS. Even if you don’t plan on any of these events during a deployment, it is safer to get the Specific POA and hold onto it. Who can predict when you will lose an ID card? Or if you will find out you are pregnant right after he leaves for a year? Or if a family emergency will cause you to move home during the deployment? It happens. Having a specific POA gives the spouse the ability to make decisions quickly during emergency situations.
The one situation where a POA won’t help is getting passports for children. Whether you have overseas orders or are planning a Caribbean cruise, you cannot get passports for minors without the consent of both parental guardians. Usually, both parents have to appear in person to get a passport for a minor.
Family Care Plans are needed for emergencies
The Family Care Plan is a completely separate, but equally important legal document. This form designates the official short-term and long-term caregivers for the children, in case something happens to the parent on the home front while the other parent is deployed. This form is also required for any single parent on a military deployment.
For example, during our last deployment, my husband was on the other side of the world while I was taking care of our four young children. If I was suddenly injured or became hospitalized, who would take care of them? It would take several days to get word to him and make arrangements for him to fly home. Similarly, I had no local family members and couldn’t rely on any relatives to pick them up from school or watch them overnight. If I was injured in a hospital, I wouldn’t be able to make phone calls or give instructions. Our Family Care Plan designated a local neighbor who could care for my children for the first day or two until a family member arrived. It also designated which relatives to contact in a medical emergency.
A copy of the Family Care Plan is kept with the Family Readiness Officer for the unit (like an FRG for Army, Ombudsman for Navy), so if the unit is contacted by the hospital, they will know which actions to take next. You should save the phone number to the unit’s contact person in your phone under emergency contacts or keep a card in your wallet so first responders know who to contact.
Peace of mind is priceless
During deployment, it sometimes seems that anything that can go wrong will go wrong. It’s like a special version of Murphy’s Law for military spouses. To prepare for the unexpected, be sure to get a POA and a Family Care Plan before your service member deploys. Taking these steps now will make emergencies easier to handle, saving you a lot of time and unnecessary stress. When you are preparing for the next deployment, be sure to discuss these legal documents with your spouse.
Lizann Lightfoot is the Seasoned Spouse, a military wife of 9 years who has been with her husband since before Boot Camp—15 years ago! Together they have been through 6 different deployments and 4 different duty stations (including 1 overseas in Spain). Lizann spends her days at home wrangling their 4 young children, cooking somewhat healthy meals, writing about military life, and wondering where the family will end up next. She is the author of the book ‘Welcome to Rota,’ and of the Seasoned Spouse blog. Follow her on Twitter. Find military encouragement on her Facebookpage. Find inspiration for care packages, deployments, and more on herPinterest page.