The unexpected deaths of several San Diego Psychological Association (SDPA) members was the catalyst for the association to develop a task force on psychologist retirement, death or incapacitation, which led to the creation of a template "professional will." The deaths of these psychologists left their colleagues and spouses with responsibility for notifying patients and handling legal issues--a duty for which they were completely unprepared. Some patient records couldn't be found, computer passwords were unknown and even handwritten phone numbers for patients were illegible.

To prevent such difficulties, "everyone should really have a [professional will]," says Ain Roost, PhD, a psychologist in San Diego and former president of SDPA. The will can ensure that at least the most important bases are covered, he says. The provision gives authority and instructions to a professional executor--a mental health professional--regarding a psychology practice when the practitioner dies or becomes incapacitated.

Laws affecting closing a practice differ across states and can change. Some state associations provide a template to members, as SDPA does, or psychologists can work with their attorneys to create their own. However, Roost emphasizes that the template contains suggestions based on SDPA's experience and isn't intended as legal advice. "There are many ways to do this and psychologists should consult with a knowledgeable attorney to determine their own needs," he says.

The first step in creating a professional will is picking an executor. Roost advises that psychologists pick another mental health professional they trust and respect. It's also wise to have a backup executor, he notes. A psychologist should also give a professional executor the name of the executor of a personal will and should give a final copy of the professional will to a lawyer. SDPA and other state associations, such as the Arizona Psychological Association (AZPA), have created tips for developing a professional will. They suggest that the document should cover topics such as:

  • Client records. The executor must know where the records are kept, and the records should be organized into groups of current and past clients. Record-keeping guidelines set by state law, as well as by APA's Ethics Code, should be followed by the professional executor.

  • Billing and financial records. The professional will should specify the location of these documents so that outstanding bills and transactions can be managed.

  • Appointment book and patient contact information. Patients should be notified of a psychologist's death or illness--before they show up for next appointments.

  • E-mail and voice mail access codes, and keys to the psychologist's office, file cabinets and storage facility. Executors will need full access to the practice.

  • Patient notification. Some psychologists may choose to have their patients notified in writing, through a notice in the newspaper or by phone. Others might leave the method up to the professional executor.

  • Liability insurance. Malpractice carriers should be notified as soon as possible of a psychologist's death or illness.

  • Compensation for professional executor. Not only does a professional will make for a smoother transition for patients, it also benefits a psychologist's family by removing this responsibility from them during what is already a very difficult and emotionally demanding time, says Roost.

Felix Saloman, PhD, past chair of AZPA's ethics committee, agrees: "There aren't too many professionals who go to the extent of caring for people after their death. And it can be a good educational approach to helping psychologists understand their own attitudes about death."