Do you need a literary executor?

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Has it ever crossed your mind that you might need a literary executor? Here is some advice all writers should consider…

I had a grandmother I never knew. She died before I was born — before my mother had even married — but she was a force.

A talented musician, she became a conductor in the early 1900s. She was also politically active and — as soon as women were given the right to vote — she voted differently from her husband. Polite women did none of these things during that era.

And she was fearsomely organized. My mother and her siblings nicknamed her the Jigadeer Brindle (a mashup of the Brigadier General from the famous Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera The Pirates of Penzance) as a way of poking fun at her. 

But here is my main point: Many years before my grandmother died, when she was younger than I am now, she had earmarked all her furniture and artwork for her four children. In fact, she wrote their names on surgical tape that she affixed to the bottom of furniture and the backs of paintings. 

After she died, her fastidiousness made dividing up the estate incredibly easy. No fights. No problems. My grandmother’s wishes were blindingly clear.

Following my grandmother’s example, my husband and I have tried to be diligent about keeping our wills up to date. As the parents of triplets, we always felt some extra pressure in this regard. From our kids’ birth, we knew it was important to have a guardian identified and we definitely needed life insurance. Then, as they became older — and their strong personalities emerged — the issue of avoiding disagreements between them once we were gone became more of a motivator.

We last updated our wills in December 2019, before we were aware that a pandemic was about to pounce. I remember signing the documents with a sigh of relief. Then, the very next day, I received an email from a former client and friend who shocked me with her prescience. She asked, “What do you know about literary executors?” 

Argh! I hadn’t even thought of that whole can of worms. And I am a person with plenty of intellectual property. I have two books which have been very successful. I have my massive website with hundreds of thousands of words and an online course and a writing accountability program — all of which generate revenue.

I’m glad I have a valid will and a good executor. But my will makes no mention of my intellectual property and our executor has no expertise in literary matters. 

This is my heads up to you that, if you’re a writer or if you have a web presence, you need to make plans for how to deal with these items once you’re gone. This is not being morbid. This is simply protecting your family and beneficiaries from confusion and conflict — in the same way the surgical tape with names on it helped my grandmother’s family.

Because this newsletter/blog is read around the world, I can’t give you specific directions about what you should do. The law is geographically specific and you should make your plans based on the rules in your own country, region or state. 

But here is some very general advice that will apply in most cases:

  1. Provide specific instructions in your will for your literary matters. While some experts believe that literary executors are the only people who can handle such matters, others argue that having two executors (a regular one and a literary one) can lead to unintended consequences relating to costs and determining what happens if the two executors disagree. (I am probably just going to leave instructions for our executor about whom I wish him to consult about literary matters.) The bigger and more complex your literary income, the more important it is to be very specific about your wishes.  
  2. If your literary estate includes books published by others, your executor must notify publishers and licensees of your death and how royalties should be paid. Make sure your will includes a list of all your literary properties, either in the body of the document, or as an attachment. I feel grateful that my work is self-published but this also means I’ll need to develop a plan for how to continue sales and distribution once I’m gone.
  3. Splitting ownership of a literary estate usually creates more conflict than treating your body of work as a single “property” or estate. If you want more than one heir to benefit from your literary estate, then you should spell out your wishes in your will. It’s probably safest to approach it from an overall revenue point of view, rather than assigning certain titles to specific people (e.g. don’t say son Johnny will get revenue from book A and daughter Morgan will get revenue from book B. Instead, divide the entire amount between the both of them.)
  4. Be sure to include in your will — or an attachment — a list of your websites, passwords, on-line accounts, domain registrations and expiration dates. (And do this even if you don’t have much of a literary estate.) Leaving your heirs the job of tracking down this stuff down later would be cruel and unfair — and, sometimes, impossible.
  5. Name any unpublished works that you want to remain unpublished. This is another detail that would be easy to overlook, but specifying what you don’t want done is just as important as specifying what you do.
  6. If you have unpublished works that you want published after your death, give your literary executor the power to have the unfinished works completed, and provide instructions. Whom do you wish to edit or finish the work? How would you like it to be published? Who can handle overseeing this for you?
  7. The right to terminate a copyright license flows to your spouse or children. In most countries, the executor normally does not have the right to terminate a copyright license.
  8. How long do you want your executor to serve? Is it until they die? Is it for a specific number of years? Who is their replacement? Who is the alternate? Spell out this information in your will. 
  9. Leaving part or all of your estate to charity is something that you may wish to consider. Depending on the nature of your work, you may also think about donating your papers or your research to a particular university or library. 

In most of the world, copyright is for the life of the author, plus a renewal term of 50 years. (In the U.S. that number is 70.) If your literary estate is large enough, be sure to consult with a copyright lawyer for more information. Don’t ask your real estate lawyer or your lawyer brother-in-law to do it. Instead, get a specialist who truly understands the needs of the industry.

If your estate is not going to be big enough to require a copyright lawyer, be sure that your will at least includes a letter outlining your literary wishes to your heirs. You don’t want to leave a big mess behind you. 

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Have you given any thought to your literary estate? If so, what have you done? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below.  Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Oct. 31/20 will be put in a draw for a digital copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join Disqus to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!