Laura, a licensed clinical social worker, was considering retirement from her private practice. She wanted to move to another state to be closer to her adult children. Although she could continue working, Laura felt the effort of starting a practice in a new location would be time-consuming and expensive. She wanted to spend time enjoying her grandchildren and volunteering in the community.
Still, closing her practice posed many questions for Laura. How should she inform her past and present clients? What legal and ethical obligations did she have when closing her practice? Were there any business considerations involved in closing a practice? Laura was not sure where to start.
What Laura needed was a plan. The NASW publishes a brochure, "Retiring or Closing a Private Practice” which may be obtained from NASW’s Information Center, 1-800-638-8799. This brochure offers a number of tips and serves as a good starting point for planning a retirement.
Existing clients need to be told when the practice is closing. All clients will not be ready to terminate treatment by the closing date. Allow sufficient time for clients needing additional treatment to transfer to other therapists. Provide all existing clients with referral options. At some point, stop taking new clients.
The disposition of client records must be considered carefully. While some clients will have copies of their treatment records transferred to another therapist, the original client records should remain with the retiring social worker. Be sure to obtain a signed release of information form before transferring records. The NASW Code of Ethics specifies that records following termination of services should be stored to ensure "reasonable future access.” In addition, state statutes and contracts (e.g. with an MCO) may pose requirements on how long records must be retained. Existing and past clients should be told how they may access their records in the future. Send a letter to past clients to inform them of your retirement and how they can access their records.
Retirement planning should involve some estate planning. Ideally, a social worker’s will should provide instructions on how client records should be handled. If possible, the will should appoint a custodian of client records. Consult an attorney to be certain that estate and legal issues associated with closing a practice are addressed appropriately.
Also, consulting an accountant can be invaluable when retiring. Taxing authorities need to be informed when a practice is closing and final reports must be filed. In some cases, the disposition of certain business assets could have significant tax implications.
Professional liability agents/insurers should be notified of retirement plans. Social workers covered by a "claims made” policy, such as the one offered by the NASW Insurance Trust, should consider purchasing the maximum liability limits available prior to retirement. The NASW Insurance Trust’s policy gives insured social workers a free extended reporting rider or "tail” in the amount of the liability limits in force at retirement. Increasing liability limits prior to retirement is an inexpensive way to maximize coverage. But remember, the insured MUST contact the insurance agent to obtain the free "tail.” It is not automatic and can only be elected for a window of 90 days. Letting the policy lapse at retirement without advising the insurer can result in NO professional liability insurance coverage at all.
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