Therapists are required by their ethical and/or legal standards to have a plan in place in the event they die or become incapacitated (often called a “professional will”). Unfortunately, many if not most psychotherapists and counselors do not have such a plan in place. Some do not know that such a requirement even exists. Others simply haven’t gotten around to doing this, just like many others haven’t gotten around to creating a foundational estate plan. And yet others simply do not know where to go to create such a plan, because services in this arena are sorely lacking and often inadequate or problematic.
The reasons for this requirement is fairly straightforward. If a therapist dies or becomes incapacitated, first and foremost, we do not want the therapist’s patients to find out by coming to the therapist’s office for an appointment and finding the therapist mysteriously missing for a period of time. We want a system in place so that patients will be notified and referred to an appropriate clinician as soon as it is realistically possible to do so. The other reason has to do with patients’ right to their clinical files and to confidentiality. Under federal and state laws, clinical files must be kept for a prescribed amount of time so that a patient or other appropriate person might have access to such files even after treatment has ended. These files must be handled by an appropriate clinician (and not the therapist’s friend or spouse, unless that person happens to be an appropriate licensed clinician) who will safeguard patient confidentiality and destroy the files at the appropriate time.
If you are in therapy, you should ask your therapist if she/he has a professional will. Gadi Zohar has created specialized terms in his living trusts to fulfill this ethical/legal requirement. Also, TherapistWill.com is an inexpensive and easy alternative for therapists who are not necessarily inclined toward an entire estate plan.
Below are some of the rules that apply to California therapists. More information on particular laws and ethical rules can be found at TherapistWill’s facebook page.
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists: California Association or Marriage and Family Therapists Code of Ethics Rule 1.3
Licensed Clinical Social Workers: National Association of Social Workers Code of Ethics Rule 1.15
Psychologists: American Psychological Association Code of Conduct Rules 3.12 and 10.09; also California Business and Professions Code section 2919
Licensed Professional Clinical Counselors: American Counseling Association Code of Ethics Rule C.2.h.
Note that most of the above requirements are national. This means your therapist probably must follow the same requirements no matter what state the therapist is in.