While no one likes to think about misfortune befalling them, especially not misfortune leading to death, the reality is that none of us is guaranteed tomorrow. As a therapist, if the worst should happen, you want to be sure that your clients will be taken care of, and your colleagues and family members will know what to do with your professional affairs. While we aren’t legal experts, and you should always consult a legal professional regarding legal matters, we have several tips to share from a therapist’s perspective. Here’s what to consider and how to get started with a therapist’s professional will.
Why a Therapist Professional Will is So Important
Illness and emergencies often take people by surprise. Even those who are the picture of health can experience a medical crisis or accident. If you suddenly end up in the hospital, who will notify your clients that their appointments have been postponed or canceled? If you were to pass away, who will help your clients through the transition to working with another therapist? And who will handle the business of wrapping up the loose ends and obligations of your practice?
When several San Diego Psychological Association (SDPA) members died unexpectedly several years ago, their colleagues and spouses were left to deal with more than their grief. The responsibility of notifying patients and handling legal issues fell to them, and they were completely unprepared. They couldn’t locate several patient records or find passwords to computers. This tragedy led the association to develop a task force to help mental health professionals with the legal issues related to retirement, death, and incapacitation.
Questions to Consider
While every state has different legal requirements and procedures for establishing a will and closing a practice, there are several questions you’ll want to consider before you begin the actual process of creating one.
1. Who will handle your affairs?
One of the first things you need to establish is who will take care of your professional affairs. Who will serve as your executor? This individual will need to be prepared, have the information they need to notify clients and deal with your practice’s legal responsibilities, and have a plan in place for doing so. When choosing this person, identify who would be able to deal with challenging duties during a stressful time, with a calm demeanor. This person should also be detail-oriented to make sure nothing is overlooked. You may want this person to meet your attorney as you’re setting up your professional will, so they have an established relationship if the time comes that they need to work together.
2. Who should serve as a secondary choice for executor?
If your first choice for executor is unavailable due to an emergency, illness, or leave of absence, you should have a secondary choice ready to take their place. Decide who would best fulfill this role and talk with them to see if they would be willing to serve.
3. How will you compensate the executor?
Executing a will can take a lot of time. Think about how you’ll compensate the executor, and be sure that this is outlined clearly in the will. Your executor may need to take time away from work to fulfill their responsibilities, and you want to be sure they are compensated appropriately.
4. What steps will the executor need to take?
Think through, in detail, the steps your executor will need to take in the event they need to perform their duties. While an attorney will advise you on the legal steps, think through all of the responsibilities they would need to handle from your perspective as a therapist. Notifying your clients, obtaining patient records, connecting clients with other therapists who can continue their treatment, and wrapping up financial affairs are a few of the steps that should be on your list.
5. What instructions will the executor need?
Providing thorough instructions is one of the most critical elements of establishing a professional will. Your executor will need to know where to find the key to your office and filing cabinets, the code to your office’s security system, how to access your computer, where patient records are stored, where contact information is located, how to access your billing and financial records, where to find your appointment schedule, etc.
6. How should the executor handle notifying clients and colleagues?
Notifying clients and colleagues of a death is a difficult task. Beyond having the ability to convey this information in a caring and sensitive manner, your executor needs to know how to go about this process. Phone calls are usually better than email in this case. Still, if a client is unable to answer their phone at work or has another limitation around phone usage, you need to note this in your records and be sure the executor knows the best contact method. Additionally, your executor will want to record new messages for your voicemail greeting and set up an auto-response for your email.
7. What contact details will the executor need?
Finally, be sure that all the contact details are on hand, preferably stored with the other information your executor will need. Include contact details for clients, colleagues, your professional liability insurer, and attorney.
What Should Be in Your Therapist Professional Will
Again, states differ in their requirements, so you’ll want to talk with a legal professional, but there are certain things that all professional wills should include. The Arizona Psychological Association (AZPA) recommends the following:
- Where to find client records
- Where to find billing and financial records
- Appointment schedule and patient contact information
- E-mail and voice mail access codes, and keys to the psychologist’s office, file cabinets, and storage facility
- Patient notification plan
- Liability insurance information
- Compensation plan for the executor
Statistically, it’s unlikely that you’ll need your professional will before you retire from your practice. But there are plenty of therapists who were unprepared for unexpected tragedy, and their family, colleagues, and clients suffered as a result. Taking time to establish your professional will now will give peace of mind to you and those you care about.
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