For those of us who work in private practice and love what we do it’s hard to imagine not doing it. It’s even more impossible to imagine our own sudden and untimely death, and the impact that would have on our clients. Therefore, most of us have not even considered the necessity of creating a professional will. And yet it is vitally important as it goes a long way towards lessening the burden that loved ones are left with, while reducing the untethered feeling that clients experience when they lose a beloved therapist. There are templates for professional wills available on-line that help identify the bases that should be covered. We need to make sure that an updated list of our clients, along with their contact information, is available to either the attorney, colleague, or family member who is designated as the executor of our will.
The Executor should have access to locked cabinets that contain clients’ charts and other pertinent records. A plan for the storage of those charts- until they are destroyed per record retention laws-should be in place. Include a list of insurance companies and colleagues who should be contacted. Executors need access to our office, websites, and answering machines. Information about billing and how to handle outstanding debt should be available as well. One necessary base to cover is leaving behind a list of referrals for our existing clients. This is especially important if we have a particular area of expertise, such as working with traumatized clients, eating disorders, or adult ADD. These clients need and deserve to be referred to another therapist who specializes in that area as well. It is even worth considering the value of including therapists who specialize in grief work, as clients dealing with the death of a therapist would benefit from that support. Having a scripted version of what we want our clients to be told regarding our passing is helpful to our executor. Decisions including whether or not we want clients present at our funeral or memorial service can be articulated as well.
Many articles written on the subject advise that we put together an emergency response team or “ERT.” This team should be made up of professionals who understand the nuances of confidentiality and the sensitivity that is needed when clients are informed about the death of someone who is so important to them. As maudlin as it may seem to think about and concretely plan for our own death, when we don’t make those arrangements our family members and colleagues become burdened with many difficult decisions at a time when they are already overwhelmed. Our responsibility to tend to this issue is actually included in our professional code of ethics. Making up any kind of will can be upsetting and triggering, but we can take comfort in the fact that when we do, our clients are much more likely to get the support they need to continue on their healing journeys.
Do you have a will in place? Let us know if you’ve taken care of this sensitive issue.