A few years ago, my wife and I were traveling overseas when a police officer stopped us. We hadn’t paid a transfer fee between trains—a mistake I made as a result of not knowing the language well enough. Because we had boarded the train without paying, we now owed a hefty fine that amounted to much more than the cash we had with us. As we tried to navigate the language barrier and figure out how to resolve the situation, I had a moment of panic for my career.
I was supposed to be back in the office on Monday.
Panicked thoughts and questions started swirling around my head. If I were to land in jail because of this, what would happen to my clients on Monday morning? Would they show up only to find my office door locked, with no word about what was going on? If I wasn’t able to contact them myself, how would they know that I was okay, or when I’d be back? How long would it take for them to give up on me, and go find another therapist? Or worst of all: What if a client went into crisis, and needed my help?
How to Plan for the Unexpected
We got the train ticket situation resolved, and I made it back to the US on time for my first session Monday morning. But despite the happy ending, that moment was instructive for me.
I’d always thought that having a plan for closing my practice was something I wouldn’t need until I approached retirement—something that was, and still is, a long way off. But retirement or taking a vacation isn’t the only thing that can stop your work. Illness or another emergency could strike at any time, as I experienced first-hand on this trip.
The impact that such an event can have on your personal life is bad enough. But there are implications for your professional life as well. If you’re unexpectedly unable to make it to work, what happens to your clients? Who lets them know? Who would be on-call to respond to a client in crisis? Then there’s the logistical side of running a business. If you’re absent for a long period of time, who pays the rent on your office? Who responds to routine calls and emails, or pays your bills?
Planning for an emergency situation is like buying life insurance. It isn’t sexy, and hopefully you won’t need it anytime soon. But having a well-thought out plan in place for situations like these is an important act of caring and consideration for your clients and colleagues. It’s also caring for your loved ones, who will also get peace of mind knowing that if you have an emergency, your practice is already taken care of.
You Need a Professional Will
The best and easiest way to plan for these instances is what’s called a professional will. Most professional codes of ethics generally demand that therapists make plans in advance for unexpected absences, and a professional will is precisely that plan.
Your professional will can take a variety of formats, but no matter how you format it, you should identify a professional executor, usually another licensed mental health provider. Your professional will gives that person the authority to act on your behalf, and should include all the instructions they would need to notify your clients, appropriately handle your records, make referrals for continuation of care as needed, and generally wind down your practice.
There are some sample professional wills available online, and having any professional will is likely better than having none at all. But a professional will that identifies a colleague to take over for you without providing clear and specific instructions is one that may set that trusted colleague up for failure. They’ll have a hard time contacting your clients per your request if they don’t have access to your office or the password for your electronic records.
What to Include in Your Professional Will
To make sure your executor is set up with everything they need to support you and your clients, make sure your instructions are clear and succinct. It’ll also be helpful if you leave instructions for how to best reach your clients. For instance, if you leave instructions for your executor to contact all your clients by phone, but you have a client who isn’t able to answer their phone at work, you’ll want to note the best alternative way to reach that client.
You’ll also want to make sure your executor has all the contact information they need for the business side of your practice, like any colleagues with whom you regularly interact, your professional liability insurance company, and your attorney. It can also be helpful for your attorney and your executor to meet during the process of creating your professional will, so they have a relationship established if they ever need to work together.
Creating your professional will isn’t sexy, but it’s caring and wise. If you ever have a medical emergency—or, like me, a moment of panic on a foreign trip—you can rest assured that while you’re handling whatever it is that needs your attention right then, you’ll still be able to offer uninterrupted care for your clients.