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Writers and Editors (RSS feed)

Estate Planning for Authors: Authors' wills, trusts, and estates

Updated 10-30-22


As a writer, have you spelled out who inherits the rights to and income from the work you leave behind--your intellectual property? Here are some helpful explanations, for various scenarios.

When a Writer Dies: Making Difficult Decisions About the Work Left Behind (Eric Newton on Jane Friedman's blog, 2-1-22) When an author’s death leaves a manuscript unfinished, her husband tries to put together the pieces and complete the book.
What Happens to Your Books After You Die? (Maggie Lynch, POV Author Services, 6-8-22) Excellent guidance. What does an heir need to know to manage the rights to your literary estate? How to find someone willing to be a literary executor when your books aren't making $10-$25K+. The earnings and payment problems for a literary executor's time. What Maggie has set up for herself (including a literary trust). This is an expansion on an earlier piece Maggie wrote for ALLi on Last Will and Testament: Why Indie Authors Need Literary Executors & How to Appoint One (1-11-19). Maggie is not a lawyer, but writes about what she learned for her own estate planning.

Bitter feuds, buried scandal: the contested world of literary estates (Leo Robson, New Statesman, 1-2-19) When an author dies, literary estates take over – bringing disputes, fraud and conflagrations.
Death is not the end: the lucrative world of literary estates (John Gapper, Financial Times, 7-26-19) The growth of streaming services, demand for audio books and the globalisation of publishing are a boon for a writer’s descendants. Excellent overview of flourishing estates.
Neil Gaiman on why writers tend to put off writing wills, particularly wills that spell out how their intellectual property should be handled. You can download a template (PDF) of a generic will for U.S. authors but maybe run it by a lawyer, as laws vary by state.
Important. And pass it on... (Neil Gaiman, A Simple Will,10-30-06) Download "A Simple Will" and fill it in for yourself.
Estate Planning for Authors: Tips for Your Financial and Literary Legacy (Edward M. McBoyd, YouTube video of Authors Guild webinar, 11-6-19, 1.4 hrs). Pretty thorough legal overview for providing for your author's estate. McBoyd explains wills, trusts, and other estate planning vehicles; the possibility of appointing a “literary executor” or “literary trustee” to manage the copyrights in the author’s estate; providing for the administration of “digital assets,” such as the author’s website or social media pages; and the exercise of statutory rights to terminate copyright grants, including after an author’s death. You want to be sure not only that the income goes to the right heirs and that your intellectual property is being properly managed.
Estate Planning for Your Indie Author Business (Karen Myers, Alliance of Independent Authors, 1-4-19) "We indie authors are typically one-man businesses. We don’t think in terms of key employees, since we haven’t got any, but we are ourselves the key employee, and we need to make plans for what will happen when we are no longer able to run our business. And if we’ve managed to grow large enough to have actual employees, we have the same issues as any other small business. We need a business succession plan."
Estate Planning for Self-Published Authors With Kathryn Goldman (video, 40 min, copyright attorney Goldman on The Creative Penn, 11-13-15)
When A Self-Published Author Dies What Happens To Their Books? (Derek Haines, Just Publishing Advice, 7-9-21) When a self-published author dies, there is no clear process. What to do if you have self-published with Amazon KDP, Draft2Digital (D2D), or Smashwords.

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A Primer on Estate Planning as a Writer (Leonard D. Duboff and Sarah J. Tugman on Jane Friedman's blog, 3-4-19) Explains basic terms. For example, an estate can be "either trust-based or will-based." If properly drafted and "ambulatory," a will can change to apply to property acquired after the will is written. If revocable, "it can be changed or canceled before death." A trust is a legal arrangement by which one person (the trustee) holds certain property for the benefit of another (the beneficiary). A "testamentary trust" is created by will, must be probated along with the will, and in some states probate can be lengthy and expensive. The authors explain the advantages of a"trust-based plan" over a "traditional will-based plan" (e.g., avoiding probate, ensuring privacy) and the use of a life insurance trust to "guarantee liquidity." From their book, The Law (in Plain English) for Writers.
Estate planning and estate and inheritance taxes: What you need to know (Comfortdying.com)
Estate Planning in general (Comfortdying.com) Read about a problem with Paul Newman's estate.
Estate Planning For Writers (Matt Knight, Sidebar Saturdays, 12-2-17) The advantages and disadvantages of wills and trusts, whether you need both an executor and a literary trustee, how to structure a literary estate. See also Estate Planning for Writers Part II — Transferring Intellectual Property to a Corporate Entity (10-2-21)
What Happens When An Author Dies. Estate Planning With Kathryn Goldman (Joanna Penn, Creative Penn, 11-23-15) Podcast and text.
The Death of a Writer (Allison K Williams, Brevity's nonfiction blog, 6-4-19) Who is going to deal with your literary legacy, and what do you want done with your journals, family photos, genealogical research, story notes, complete and unfinished manuscripts, published works (who inherits the copyright?), treasured mementos, social media (wipes? or legacy status?), passwords and account numbers for whoever wraps up your estate? And do you want any old letters or evidence of love affairs preserved or destroyed?
The great estate: those global literary brands roll on (Robert McCrum, The Guardian, 3-15-12) The recently deceased Dmitri Nabokov made a fortune from his father's estate, while the houses of Fleming, Tolkien et al are equally at home in the digital age.
Writers' wills: a rich legacy for readers (Claire Armitstead, The Guardian, 1-8-14) As a stock of famous authors' final testaments are posted online, we can be glad of the insights they leave to us.

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An end to bad heir days: The posthumous power of the literary estate (Gordon Bowker, Independent UK, 1-6-12) ""On the last day of 2011, the 70th anniversary year of his death, James Joyce's work finally passed out of copyright. It was the dawn of a new age for Joyce scholars, publishers and biographers who are now free to quote or publish him without the permission of the ferociously prohibitive Joyce estate."
Wills of the Rich and Famous (aka "celebrity wills," posted on Living Trust Network, an estate planning portal). Featured: Warren Burger, Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), Princess Diana. Walt Disney, Doris Duke, Elizabeth Edwards, Henry Fonda, Benjamin Franklin, Clark Gable, James Gandolfini, Katherine Hepburn, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, "Shoeless Joe" Jackson, Thomas Jefferson, President John F. Kennedy, John Kennedy, Jr. and more.
Famous wills 1552-1854 In 2014, the National Archives (UK) brought online this collection of documents that will delight biographers and historians. Among them, the wills of William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Admiral Lord Nelson, Dr. Samuel Johnson, John Donne, Sir Francis Drake, William Congreve, Samuel Pepys, William Penn, George Frederic Handel, and William Wordsworth. (The link has changed. You'll have to search for this one.)

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• Guest-blogging on Writers in the storm, Susan Spann (author of the popular Shinobi Mystery series, published a series of pieces advising on authors' estate planning and authors' trusts, under the Publaw theme (where you can find more of these). I link to some of them here:
--- WHO WILL YOU TRUST? Wills in Author Estate Planning Susan Spann, guest blog on Writers in the Storm, 5-10-13).
---Who Inherits Your Copyrights? (4-22-13)
---Do You Own Your Copyrights? (Susan Spann, 1-10-14)
---Do You Know Your (Copy) Rights? (Susan Spann, 12-13-13)
---Who Can an Author Trust? Trusts in the Author Estate Plan (6-14-13).
---Do You Need a Literary Executor? (Susan Spann, 7-15-13)
--- How to Choose a Literary Executor (Susan Spann, 8-9-13)
---But What Does a Literary Trustee DO? (Part 1) (Susan Spann)
---Trust The Process: Literary Executors, Part 2 (Susan Spann)

Rights and Royalties Management, Licensing,

issues about and problems with authors' and artists' estates. What happens to works after authors die. (Writers and Editors, Copyright, work for hire, and other rights issues)

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• SFWA runs two helpful lists (which cover more than genre fiction writers):
---Estates Contact Information
---Estates we’re looking for
Literary estates administered by The Society of Authors (UK)
Wills, Probate and Trusts For Writers (H.S. Stavropoulos, author of crime fiction with a Greek-American flavor)

Now some stunning photographs:
15 Famous Authors’ Beautiful Estates (Emily Temple, Flavorwire, 1-24-12) Photos of the beautiful homes of Anaïs Nin, Edith Wharton, Ernest Hemingway, Evelyn Waugh, Gore Vidal, J. K. Rowling, Kurt Vonnegut,Vladimir Nabokov, Mark Twain, Stephen King, Robert Graves, Victor Hugo, Eudora Welty, William Shakespeare, Frederick Douglass.'
18 Famous Authors’ Houses Worth Seeing (Nick Mafi, Architectural Digest, 10-4-19)

What other resources are helpful? Tell me about experiences you've had or know about that it might be helpful for others to know about -- particularly problems to avoid or minimize.

Updated from original entry Dec. 12, 2014

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