Many psychotherapists work in private practice.  They often serve a very important function in our lives: holding our deepest hopes and fears as we traverse the peaks and valleys of our lives.  Yet, they are human beings who can die or suddenly lose capacity just like the rest of us. 

When a therapist dies, the ripple effects are going to be felt strongly by her patients.  Therapists understand very well that abandonment is one of the most hurtful experiences a patient can experience.  They plan to have a backup therapist available when they go on vacation.  But despite the fact that they are generally required to have one, most therapists do not have a professional will for referring their patients out and handling clinical files properly if the therapist dies or becomes incapacitated.  Many therapists do not even know that they are required to have such a document, which is similar to a will (hence the term, “professional will”). 

What’s more, many inexpensive professional will options available to therapists are created by other therapists, not estate planning lawyers.  You wouldn’t want a lawyer for grief counseling.  Why would you want a therapist creating a professional will?  It is simply unreasonable to expect a therapist to think like an estate planning lawyer. 

If you are a patient, ask your therapist if she has a professional will.  You have a right to know, just as you have a right to know whether she carries malpractice insurance.  in fact, the American Counseling Association requires disclosure of the existence of a professional will in the patient-therapist informed consent agreement.  Hopefully your inquiry with your therapist will spur a healing conversation about the mortality of the people on whom you depend.

Remember that your therapist is human too.  If she doesn’t have a professional will, it’s not because she’s irresponsible.  Many therapists simply do not know they need such a document.  They have so many ethical demands that they are not likely to think about this one without being informed.  To illustrate the point, you might want to share with them the story of a real person whose therapist died without a professional will.  This is not just an academic exercise.  It really does happen.

Finally, therapists are not lawyers.  So they might not consider the fact that such a document should be vetted by an estate planning lawyer.  The best solution is to get a lawyer involved.  It doesn’t have to be a $3,000 estate plan.  They can create their own professional will and have an estate planning lawyer give an opinion/recommendations.  Or they can try, which offers a relatively inexpensive online option.  But is only available to California therapists at this time.

It is very easy to avoid this topic until it’s too late.  In the spirit of Seven Ponds, you are invited to break the avoidance norm and broach this topic with your therapist.  Hopefully, you’ll both be glad you discussed it.