Earlier this week, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling that the vote of a federal judge in deciding a case does not count if the opinion in that case is issued after the judge dies. In the case, Yovino v. Rizo, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued an opinion announcing a new interpretation by that court of the federal Equal Pay Act, on April 9, 2018, which was authored by Judge Stephen Reinhardt. Judge Reinhardt, however, had passed away on March 29, 2018, 11 days before the court released the opinion to the public.
In a footnote, the opinion indicated that Judge Reinhardt had “fully participated in this case” and that the opinion was final and voting was complete before Judge Reinhardt’s death. The Supreme Court disagreed with this justification for issuing posthumously an opinion authored by Judge Reinhardt, however, writing that “it is generally understood that a judge may change his or her position up to the very moment when a decision is released.” Noting that “federal judges are appointed for life, not for eternity,” the Supreme Court vacated the Ninth Circuit’s ruling because Judge Reinhardt was no longer an active judge when the court issued its decision and, therefore, his vote in the case didn’t count.
While the Supreme Court case involved a specific federal law governing the authority of judges to participate in decisions of the Court of Appeals, the ruling provides a generalized example of what happens to a person’s authority to make legally-binding decisions upon death. In short, your ability to take a legally-binding action dies when you do, and any authority that you have delegated to take action on your behalf while you are alive terminates when you are no longer living. This means that if you are acting as an agent to handle another person’s financial affairs under a General Durable Power of Attorney, the authority to act under that document terminates when that person is no longer alive. When someone dies, their estate assumes legal authority for management of their affairs and, generally, a probate will be required in order for a court to appoint someone to serve personal representative who will have legal authority to act on behalf of the estate.
Questions about how estate planning documents can delegate authority to act on your behalf? Talk to an attorney. We’re happy to help.