The Professional Will

Avoiding Malpractice: Tips for Social Workers to Manage Risk

The Professional Will

The death or even the incapacitation of a practitioner requires an immediate set of actions. The practitioner’s survivors, spouses, partners, and colleagues have the responsibility to notify patients and settling legal matters. A Professional Will assigns authority and directions to the Executor, usually a practitioner. While developing a Professional Will, the practitioner needs to consult with a lawyer who is knowledgeable about the profession and the law of wills and estates. Laws differ among states and change over time, which is another consideration.

In this first of a two-part series on the Professional Will, we examine the five major categories involved and provide a sample Professional Will in Part 2 of this series for informational purposes only with commentary.

The five major categories to consider are:

  1. Executor
  2. The “Keys” to your office
  3. Professional Liability Coverage
  4. Legal Elements
  5. Defining Support Elements

Executor

The Executor is to be selected first. Pick another healthcare professional who you trust and respect. Does this candidate have the understanding and sensitivity that you prefer? Is this candidate capable of stepping in promptly to fill the gap and take care of the matters immediately? Make sure that the candidate does not travel frequently, and is unable to appear in the venue on your behalf. Also, select a backup Executor. Maybe even a backup to your backup. Of course, review the responsibilities of these people and get their approval prior to naming them in your Professional Will.

The “Keys” to Your Office

This category includes client records, billing and financial records, appointment book, patient contact book, email and voice mail codes, and colleague notification.

Client records are vital for the Executor to access immediately. The records must be safe, secure, and accessible by the Executor. The records must be filed by current and past clients. Record keeping guidelines are set by state laws. The sudden death of a practitioner may trigger a crisis among some clients. Make sure that the files indicate exactly how each client wants to be contacted. The Professional Will should also stipulate whether the Executor or some other person is responsible enough to maintain the client records.

Billing and financial records must be clearly filed and easily located by the Executor. The Professional Will must include clear directives about how business expenses are to be paid. Also, the practitioner, when writing the Professional Will, may have directed that the Estate forgive certain unpaid client receivables. Perhaps the practitioner wishes to provide a session for a client(s) paid for by the Estate. The Professional Will must include explicit instructions about these intentions.

The appointment book is critical for the Executor to examine immediately. The clients must be notified immediately and prior to the next scheduled appointment. The patient contact book and methods by which to contact the clients is critical. There are many pitfalls that can occur, such as information falling into the wrong hands, when simply sending a notice letter, or leaving a recorded message on the client’s answering machine. Immediately change the deceased practitioner’s voice mail greeting message to refer callers to the Executor and/or to the practitioner who is implementing the deceased practitioner’s Professional Will. This may include a referral to designated colleagues to arrange treatment appointments. Some clients may require special consideration. Regardless, the notification method must respect each client’s right to privacy and contain sensitivity. Many clients rely on their practitioner and will be shocked upon hearing about their practitioner’s sudden death in particular.

Colleague notification will be much more effective when the practitioner lists prospective colleagues as potential matches to specific clients for continued treatment. And of course, contact information is readily available.

Next month, we will provide an example of a Professional Will, and continue with a discussion of the insurance aspect, legal elements, and the support elements.

Published October 2016

Resources and References