In Which I Harangue Creative Types to Update Their Wills and Estates
Posted on June 4, 2015 Posted by John Scalzi 96 Comments
Today my wife and I went into our lawyer’s office and updated our everything, including wills, living wills, donor registries and so on. Why did we do this? Because at this point in our life we have a fair number of assets, and given my recent deal, it’s likely we’ll have more in the future. Moreover, as a creative person, I have a considerable amount of intellectual property, which will need to be attended to if something should happen to me. If Krissy and I didn’t specify what was to become of all of that, it would be up to the state to deal with it. No offense to the state, but I don’t know it all that well. So Krissy and I have made sure that our own wishes for everything are in legal documents and up to date. Now there is no confusion about our wishes.
I frequently harangue writers and other creative types about financial issues, so allow me to do it again here: Creative folks, you must do some estate planning. You have assets. You have intellectual property. You (probably) have family or friends that you might want to have benefit from your work after you’re gone — and you might have some people (which may even include family) that you might not want to have a say in what happens to your work when you are dead. If you die — and you will die, one day! — and you have not left direction toward the disposition of your intellectual and real property, then someone else will make those choices for you. As a result, some of the people you would want to benefit might get nothing. Some you don’t want to get anything could get a lot. And in the meantime, it’s all going to be stuck in probate, which is fun for exactly no one.
No, it doesn’t matter if you’re young. Young people die all the time, and creatives are famously prone to bad habits that increase their risks (including, in the US, not carrying health insurance). No, it doesn’t matter that you’re not famous or that your work doesn’t have wide circulation. There are tons of artists who became far more famous (and rich!) after their death than before it. In my field, a fine example of this is Philip K. Dick, who struggled financially in life and has become a multi-millionaire in death as his stories have been turned into successful films.
And yes, it does matter to your legacy if you don’t give direction for what happens to your work after you die. Academic James Boyle notes that something like 95% of all copyrighted material since 1900 is “orphaned” — that is to say, material for which there is no clear owner (either an estate or designated individual), and so cannot be legally reproduced. If you want your work to be legally available after you die, the best thing you can do is leave clear instruction as to what or whom owns the rights (including, if you so desire, giving the work a Creative Commons license until it makes it into the public domain a ridiculously long time after you are dead).
Beyond that, I know personally writers who have died and whose families have decided to withdraw all of that writer’s work from the public sphere, forbidding reproduction or republication. In the particular case I’m thinking of, it’s almost impossible that this choice is what the writer would have wanted. But the writer never said in life what they wanted to have happen to the work, and therefore in death no longer has a say.
This is important stuff, people. I can’t stress this enough. And yes, it costs money, and yes, it takes time, and yes, you might think it doesn’t matter. But it’s worth the time and money, and if you believe your choices about your work matter while you’re alive, there’s no reason that they shouldn’t matter after you are gone. And if you have people you love and care about, whom you wish to see benefit from what you’ve created, then it’s smart — and kind — to make a document that makes your wishes clear and spares them the pain, aggravation and expense of having to deal with your lack of planning while you were alive.
So: The Scalzi Estate is now updated and planned for. Is yours? If the answer is “no,” ask yourself why not. And ask yourself if there is anyone in the world for whom a little bit of planning on your part would make their lives easier if and when you go. And then, go take care of this stuff. It matters.
First off – now certain people will say on the interwebs that you are dying. Screw’em.
Second having just gone though my dad’s passing it is really helpful to have a well written will or trust. Dad went the trust route which has certain legal and tax advantages (esp in Cal). I even told mom (they are divorced) that I would pay for her to get a proper trust set up.
Third. Young people do die all the time – it is tragic and sad, but a little planning can make the life that goes on after a lot easier. An old girlfriend of mine died very suddenly in a tragic accident leaving two young boys behind who were 7 and 5 years old. She was the daughter of a doctor and a first grade teacher and lived a very low risk lifestyle. She had no will and no plans and the father was just about useless. It left her parents in a real bind trying to figure out what was best. Eventually extended family stepped in and is raising the boys. A little planning and few uncomfortable conversations might have made things easier.
It can also save your family if you have multiple siblings. I know of two situations right now where when the surviving parent passes and there is no will that the siblings will likely have fights and I bet it will end up with the families broken up and siblings not speaking to each other for a long time. Don’t let that happen to your family.
To be fair, everyone with any assets or children should do this.
Way past time to update my will.
Nuh-uh! Me and the universe, we got a deal and it ain’t happening. Just as long as I sacrifice a dodo or great auk on my next birthday then I’m good forever. Hey, how common are those anyway? I figure they got to be around pretty much everywhere, right?
Where does one find a lawyer who knows how to handle intellectual property?
Yup, everyone should. Creatives seem worse at it than other people, in my experience.
Yikes, that blockquote is huge. Not your fault, of course. Gonna have to scale that back in the CSS.
I did it the old fashioned way: Yellow pages.
It looked regular size in the preview, John, sorry about that.
I missed my chance to ask this in Reader Request Week but if something should happen to you, is there anything in place with regard to all your books and future book storylines such that Krissy, Athena or one of your cats could continue your work? A rough draft or rough rough outline?
these are the types of blog posts I liking reading, practical, personal, informative and interesting. Just saying
Hillary Rettig: “Where does one find a lawyer who knows how to handle intellectual property?
John Scalzi: “I did it the old fashioned way: Yellow pages. ”
And the big question — where does one find Yellow Pages anymore?
Reblogged this on Nikka Michaels and commented:
So important for people in the creative industries!
Thanks for the reminder. Even non creative types need to do this. Harder if spouses disagree on distribution of assets when they are gone or one hopes to continue controlling the other if they die first. But a good attorney should be able to help mediate these issues.
I would also add that in addition to wills and estates, a modicum of financial planning in general will go along way. Ideally, one would like to retire and enjoy a bit of life before the mortal coil is shaken. Even before that, abodes may be purchased, kids sent to college. Even with the non-regular income that’s the hallmark of creative folk, you can still plan for the future.
Because really, that whole starving artist thing? It’s sucks and, sometimes, can be readily avoided by planning first.
re: that giant block quote–I think that it would be helpful for that block quote AND ONLY THAT block quote to stay the size it is.
May I also add that it’s just as important to talk to your tax advisor, one that will work in conjunction with your lawyer? When I worked in the field, there were so many times we were brought in after an event (or business deal, or what-have-you), when it was too late to avoid unexpected tax consequences. If we had been consulted on the front end, we could have suggested ways to structure their finances to avoid unnecessary tax burdens.
“your gone” -> “you’re gone”
It’s usually also ridiculously easy to tag on something to the effect of “and if all the beneficiaries die in the same fire/blimp accident, please give everything to the Scalzi Memorial Home for Sick Puppies”, or your charity of choice. Which you hopefully also know and trust a little bit better than the state.
No worries, I fixed it.
I don’t write outlines, so the only unfinished work would be something I was in the middle of writing. I assume my editor would hire someone to finish the work, with the estate’s permission.
Your dog gets the lawn I assume?
My dad died just over 2 years ago. No estate to speak of, but no will and no funeral planned either, beyond having said he wanted to be cremated. Planning in advance would have made it much easier on my mum – she now has a funeral policy. Thank god for charity and her brothers.
If all the beneficiaries die in the same fire/blimp accident, please use the money to sue Count Zeppelin. On, the humanity!
Valar Morghulis :-(
I can only second what John said. But let me ask everyone to update or write his patient’s provision while you’re at it and to give the power of attorney to someone in case you are unable to exercise your own free will.
Everyone underestimates the speed with which things can develop. And believe me, when you are already worrying day and night about a loved one, you don’t want to make decisions for him/her like artificial respiration, parenteral nutrition or transanimation.
Thank you! As a writer, albeit not wholly successful one yet, I know I want to make sure my creative assets are taken care of. This advice also goes for non-creatives as well. We just dealt with a huge mess with a sibling over my father’s death and estate. I did make sure to get certain physical assets before she pawned them off. Those are safe. No matter whether you’re creative or not, even if you don’t think there’s anything to your estate, there will be something, even if meager. Always make a will. I will be doing so as soon as I have the means to pay an attorney to do it. Thank you.
Pleased as always to have you as my literary executor, John!
Yep; this is good advice. I was sitting here rather smugly thinking I’ve got everything sewn up, and I hauled my will from the desk drawer. At least I thought I was going to do that, but it isn’t where it should be, and a quick ransack of shouldn’t be but plausible places also failed.
So, I need a new will, since it’s so long since I made the last one that I can’t recall the lawyer’s name, and there are a lot of lawyers in London…
For help finding an attorney with intellectual property experience, in addition to the yellow pages and google, you can try asking any of the following: A local bar association; call the local Probate Court and ask if they know anyone (or have a number for the local bar association); the National Association of Estate Planners and Councils (with a handy state/zip search at: http://www.naepc.org/designations/estate_planners/search#spec/AEP,EPLS); the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel (another handy search box at https://www.actec.org/public/roster/FindFellow.asp). Most colleges, universities, and larger non-profits can also refer you to qualified professionals — call their Advancement/Development departments.
I’m not creative in any way, but my wife and I have our estate (what there is of it) all buttoned up for when we die. For us, it’s important because we don’t have kids. As much as I love California, I don’t want it to have all my stuff when I die. Instead, it will go to the nieces and nephews and a few non-profits. My sister and her husband have their estate set up so that if they die while the kids are still minors, my wife and I will finish raising them.
One group of people like probate – estate lawyers.
We’re in California so a family trust is necessary to avoid endless probate delays.
Also important is the advanced medical directives – having gone through this with my father-in-law, knowing what the person wants and doesn’t want is incredibly useful, and goes to slightly reducing the enormous stress of an end-of-life situation.
That’s how murder mysteries start, y’know. ( In a shocking twist, it’ll turn out to be the conspiracy of the pets.) Me, I keep my _viper’s nest_ of a family guessing. Won’t get me, mom! You made me a pie? Bah, _please._ I know a murder plot when I smell one.
Hear, hear! My wife’s a judge, so we do our own paperwork for nothing more than the investment of time, but it’s still important. We’ve got her kids. We’ve got stepkids. We’ve got grandkids. We’ve a growing stack of assets, including insurance policies, pension benefits, personal assets, houses, and so on. Who gets what and how is important to nail down.
Dying intestate is one of the nastiest things you can do to your survivors.
I don’t wanto get not
Sent from my iPod
In that particular case (if it’s the one I’m thinking of), it’s specifically that the writer never said *in a sufficiently legally-binding way*. Moral: not only should you have a will, but *talk to a lawyer* to make sure it’s valid.
(Some years ago Neil Gaiman had a very good post on the subject.)
Yep! Though we don’t have any creative work, so it wasn’t that difficult for the attorney. Still, making sure the kids are taken care of is important.
To follow up on TA Banks’s comment, in certain situations, getting a lawyer with specific experience can matter a great deal. For run-of-the-mill estate planning, it’s not generally that complicated. You’ve got a house, some personal property that has relatively modest value (nope, no one wants your old CD’s — sorry!), and some liquid or semi-liquid (stocks, etc.) assets. Any probate lawyer can do that sort of work. It’s the legal equivalent of a tooth cleaning or an oil change. Routine, necessary, and by-the-book.
However, any estate with unusual assets — and intellectual property definitely qualifies — might take a special sort of skill. I’m not saying a lawyer can’t learn what needs to be learned, but most people don’t have any intellectual property in their estate.
Note: I’m not saying the yellow pages can’t work just fine. It certainly can, as John’s experience attests. I am just pointing out that lawyers, too, are often confronted with how little they know about some particular legal issue. Be sure that you have all your questions answered when you plan your estate. You don’t want surprises. You don’t want to discover, that, damn, if you had only nailed down that one little thing, everyone’s life would be so much easier.
Thanks for the reminder, Mr. Scalzi. Spouse and I last updated our wills when our offspring were still under 18, and since they’re considerably older than that now, those documents could use some refreshing. We’ll get that going as soon as we can get an appointment with our attorney.
And I will just endorse all the comments above about the hassles involved in dealing with the assets and liabilities of a relative who dies intestate. And just so you know, it’s even worse if they die owing the IRS and the state for multiple years worth of income taxes. Don’t do that to the people you love. Don’t do that to people you don’t love, for that matter. Nobody deserves to go through that.
Good advice. I’ve always thought about ‘final messages’ and disposition of my meager assets. For example, I run several family/support web sites, so would want those to continue after I am gone.
Been working for several years on a web site that will send out a ‘final message’ for me after I am Not Here Anymore. Not legally binding, but sending final thoughts might be comforting to those left behind. I’m in the final beta testing of it. It is free (except for some minor ad blurbs).
Reticent to use this forum for publicizing it, so you can delete this comment if you want. But if people are interested in the concept, they can stop by at http://www.NotHereAnymore.com . (Still tweaking it, so don’t be concerned about wonky things showing up.)
“The Last Will and Testament of John M. Scalzi” sounds like the title of a book. That’s going to be one of the thirteen, I imagine.
“Creative folks, you must do some estate planning. You have assets. You have intellectual property.”
I mean, someone might come along a few decades later and reboot your best-know … er, ahem. Maybe I’ll just stop there.
John, everything you said is spot on. The only thing I’d add, explicitly, and you did this by virtue of the photo and the blog post , is to tell your family, friends, etc not only that you have a will but also where it is.
A good friend is dealing right now with probating the estate of another friend who died suddenly and someone else is claiming that no, he’s got the real will. That can be almost as messy as no will at all. Almost.
Great advice as usual. Thank you!
John, I takes neither that much time, nor that much money to have a lawyer execute a will. And there are many legal resources for those where the money is an issue. As for finding a lawyer, almost every state bar association has a referral help line on their home page. They will help you, for a nominal fee, find a lawyer with the expertise you need. Here is New York’s: https://www.nysba.org/lawyerreferral/ .
Reblogged this on The books are taking over… and commented:
John Scalzi always has great things to say, but this is spot on. Read it and take notes. `Kelly
You jest, but in fact, yes, if someone had been paying attention to things, it would be unlikely that Little Fuzzy would have entered the public domain, and that I would have been free to make Fuzzy Nation.
That said, I will note that after I wrote the book, we contacted the Piper Estate and sent them the manuscript and told them that if they disliked it, it would go into a drawer, never to be seen again. They did like it, and endorsed it, and we gave them a substantial cut of the earnings. Because I thought it was the ethical thing to do.
Something else to think of. Any bank account, IRA, stock accounts, etc… will need a separate beneficiary statement. If you have multiple accounts with one banker or broker make sure it includes all accounts. When my father passed away a few years ago we found out the hard way that these accounts were not included in his will. These had to go through probate court. It took over 9 months and a lot of money to the court, lawyers, and judge.
In addition to the other good advice above, I’m going to add to please keep your original will in a safe place (safety deposit box, fire proof safe, state will registry). If the original is destroyed, a copy is not sufficient without court authorization. In addition to a will (and a trust, in some cases), you should also have powers of attorney for health care and property so someone can manage your affairs in the event you are alive but mentally incapacitated. A good estate planner will include these documents in your estate plan.
Piling on … beneficiary statements trump the language of your will. So if your will says “all my assets go to my nephew Dante” but your IRA says “beneficiary is Jenny [your ex-wife]” guess who gets it? Jenny, even if you divorced eleventy years ago.
I did my will and healthcare directive for cheap thanks to Nolo’s Quicken Willmaker. It is legal almost everywhere. It still needs to be modified if you have special assets, but if all you want is basic coverage I recommend it. At the time, I hadn’t published anything and didn’t own any real property. Now I have and I do, so I need to modify it.
Fortunately for me, I work in a law firm teeming with estate and IP lawyers – if I can’t come up with the proper language myself. (To the law library!)
If you do a trust (my husband’s parents did one, thank the FSM, and it only cost them about $1500. Yes that’s cheap especially if you have three kids who don’t really get along, don’t live in the same cities, and don’t know anything about your assets – or debts) make sure you record in the trust all property that can be recorded. Savings accounts, real estate, etc. If you do the paperwork but don’t record any property you have just wasted your money and time.
It might be a good idea if SFWA or some other organization had sample documents available to help those less able to afford legal assistance.
Good advice, I would add that if you have family and kids you should also have term life insurance.
(Mostly for your own peace of mind.) Which reminds me of why I have two anniversaries. Future wife and I were living in sin, we set a wedding date for the spring. We were older and were worried about being able to conceive, so Patricia stopped talking the pill and “Bingo”, she was pregnant. A few days later I’m driving home from work and think, “What if I die in a car accident or something?” The next day we are off the the justice of the peace to make it legal.
Excellent advice, as I’ve come to expect from John. I did this a few years back (I have a large body of nonfiction that I want to have adopted by a sympathetic soul when I’m gone) and a smaller body of fiction that I’d want to see promoted. Specifically appointing a literary executor and discussing your needs with them is a particularly good idea.
One addition: Most of us have a stunning number of passwords and miscellaneous mysterious bank and online accounts (e.g., blogs, Web site upload directories, Twitter, etc. etc.), which will become unavailable to our estate when we pass if we don’t plan for this and provide the details. It’s wise to consolidate all this information in a single place (I use “Password Wallet”) and ensure that both the complete list of these accounts and the master password for the repository of passwords to those accounts is included in an addendum to your will and instructions. File it with your lawyer and with your executor for extra protection.
One note for couples with joint accounts: In some jurisdictions (e.g., here in Quebec), a joint account will be frozen as soon as the bank learns that one of the two partners is dead. So try to ensure that you have enough emergency funds to survive 6 months in an account that’s only in your name. (Building that account can be very difficult if your income is constrained, but it’s an important goal to strive for.) It shouldn’t take 6 months to clear up the situation, but the last thing your loved ones will want is be burdened with trying to convince multiple bureaucracies that you’re really dead and you’re not just trying to pillage your partner’s estate. Also, bureaucracies being bureaucracies, these things can take far longer than you expect to resolve. (Speaking based on what’s happened when my grandfather and father passed.)
Many lawyers will give you a package price to set up a will, Living Will, power of attorney and medical power of attorney. All good things.
I am not a creative type (professionally, at least), but I know we need to do this.
But man is it a depressing and mildly upsetting thing to have to do. :(
Do not put your estate documents in your safety deposit box. Unless your executor and/or successor trustee is allowed to access the safety deposit box, you will need to get a court order to enter it and get to the documents. Keep them in a safe place where they can be reached easily: at home in a fire-proof box; with your executor or successor trustee; a close friend. And someone close to your should be familiar enough with the terms of these documents to adequately plan for funeral, organ donation, autopsy, etc. because these problems arise immediately and need to be dealt with quickly. California attorney speaking.
JS – “That said, I will note that after I wrote the book, we contacted the Piper Estate and sent them the manuscript and told them that if they disliked it, it would go into a drawer, never to be seen again. They did like it, and endorsed it, and we gave them a substantial cut of the earnings. Because I thought it was the ethical thing to do”
That is pretty wonderful
I practice law in California, and can’t help leaping in.
Dsako: Yes, keep the will originals safe. In California it is considered a very bad idea to put it in a safety deposit box. Those aren’t accessible after the bank knows you are dead until you have an executor appointed, which may not be able to happen without the original will. Keep it safe, but accessible. Many attorneys will hold them, or can file with the Court pre-mortem for a smallish fee.
Again, I only know about California, but we have some very basic will forms, and health care power of attorney forms readily available to the public. Intellectual property is more complicated, but you can at least get your most basic wishes on paper. There is a basic will, with instructions on the California State Bar web site at:
If I recall correctly, stationery stores also have the forms for the will and for health care powers of attorney.
Goeff Hart: Also excellent, but I would put the master account list and the passwords in a separate document and NOT in an addendum to the will. Again, I only know about California, but here the will [including any attachments or addenda] is filed as a public document. Keep those lists near your will, of course, but I can’t think it will help anyone to have the password list public after you took the care to use a secure method to store and generate them.
George Harold points out another important thing: if you are not (or cannot be) legally married, your will/documents need to be super 100% even more airtight and covered. Look at Stieg Larsson (Girl With the Dragon Tattoo). His longtime female partner has no control over his estate and intellectual property since they were never married and he didn’t have his will in order. All the money and rights went to his brother and father, who he apparently didn’t get along with. Gay couples will need some serious lawyerin’ to prevent their loved ones.
And yes, investments each have to be separately specified and signed. Mr. Lurkertype and I are average folk with no kids, but for reasons, we have several different investment accounts (his n’ hers IRA, 401K, etc.). There’s a separate document on file for each and every account specifying who it goes to as primary beneficiaries, then secondary. We should probably add tertiary. Mine used to go to him, then to my mom — since she passed away, it’s been updated to him, then my brother; once the most excellent niece turns 18, I’ll probably update it to her for college expenses. This account is only enough to buy a bad-to-mediocre used car, but I’d rather someone I knew and liked have it than give it to the state or some random lawyer.
I am endlessly grateful that my parents had everything in order. It still took nearly two years to shake out, and at the time of their deaths, they had no real estate or property at all, just some bank accounts, investments, and insurance. And it was STILL a pain in the ass to get things notarized and registered mailed and stuff.
As a lawyer myself, I feel like I’m doing the cartel a disservice here, but it’s true: if you can’t get a lawyer to do it, go find a Nolo Press book and do it yourself. If you can’t afford a lawyer, your assets (a) aren’t so big that anyone is going to have a fight over them and (b) if they aren’t so big that anyone is going to have a fight over them, any ambiguities that might come from using a color-by-numbers legal form aren’t going to matter. It will suffice. So drop the $40 or so and get ‘er done.
So, what did Phillip K Dick do in life that his estate did differently after his death, that PKD lived poor but his estate made a lot of money?
I hear this sort of story a lot. Struggling artist dies and becomes a massive hit. Should I write under a pseudonym and then fake my own death? Is that what Elvis did?
And do not forget to make legal arrangements FOR YOUR PETS. Make sure your wishes for them are known, and in your will. Make sure the person(s) who you think will take them really will. Or arrange for a rescue group to take them in the event of your death. Look into it and then make a decision that a) is in your will and b) everyone you can think of who might be involved KNOWS about. The number of animals dumped at shelters because their owner died and no one could think of anything else to do with them is heartbreaking.
John – Can’t help but notice the living will at the top of the page. I heard that a Puppy volunteered to have your Medical Power of Attorney, free of charge!
RP: “Pull the plug.”
JS: “I’m not dead yet.”
RP: “PULL THE PLUG.”
JS: “Guys, I was just sleeping”
RP: “PULL IT – NOW!”
Lots of good advice here. Definitely put the will someplace accessible, and tell people where it is. We had that problem when my aunt died – we *know* she had updated her will in the year before she died, but we never found it. Between her business and her personal assets, it was all a mess getting everything figured out.
And I have to second India’s point about pets. Make it clear what you want done with your pets if you predecease them, and if you have it, some money to help take care of them. I’ve seen the worst fights about pets.
When my grandfather retired, he and grandmother had the contents of their house inventoried and appraised. They then sent the inventory lists to their four children and asked who wanted what. The kids made requests, my grandparents made decisions in the case of conflicts, and then sent out the final lists to everyone. When my sister decided she’d like to have a set of chairs that were going to Aunt M, Dad swapped away another piece of furniture to M, and Grandfather adjusted his main list.
When Grandfather finally died, Aunt C – who had also wanted those chairs – had had thirty years to come to terms with fact that she wasn’t going to get them, and so didn’t raise a peep about it. The only actual dispute over Grandfather’s estate was over custody of the toybox that had sat in a corner of his daughters’ room sixty years before. It hadn’t been worth enough to put on the inventory list, you see, so they both assumed they’d get it.
Too many families end up tearing themselves apart over who gets the teapot. Or, really, over who said something mean while they were bickering about the teapot when everyone involved was feeling like they’d just had a layer of skin removed. This isn’t likely to be an issue for the Scalzi family, but if you have multiple heirs, sort out who gets the silver/furniture/doilies in advance and in public. It’ll make things a lot easier on your heirs.
There’s a great site that can help you get started for free: http://getyourshittogether.org
It was started by a woman, here in Seattle, who tragically lost her husband in 2009 when he was struck by a van while biking in the city. She took all of those feelings of hopelessness, confusion (what the hell are his passwords!?) and frustration into making a site to help other people avoid these issues.
It won’t cover everything, especially with regards to intellectual property, but this is a good place to start, for free, without being advertised to or marketed at.
Reblogged this on Alder's Grove and commented:
Scalzi @ this comment “You jest, but in fact, yes, if someone had been paying attention to things, it would be unlikely that Little Fuzzy would have entered the public domain, …”
I do jest, and I am glad that for you the jest did not tip over into failure mode. So many untended details at the end of Piper’s life (at least as I understand the story), and such a loss. What would his mid-career change-up, his Stranger in a Strange Land have been like? What about his late freak-out, his Number of the Beast? Another 10 or 20 years of Piper would have been a lovely contribution to SF.
“That said, I will note…”
I remember your telling the back story of the Fuzzy story at the time of publication. “Well done,” I thought then and think now, not that you need my approbation in any way.
Speaking of details, it’s probably good that literary executors be clued in to the market(s) they will be executating in. Some well-liked SF authors are not having the posthumous careers that
theytheir heirs could be enjoying because the executors have an exaggerated sense of the estate’s value in the current market. Though I am not able to put my fingers on sources, John Brunner and John M. Ford are two names that I recall having come up in this kind of context. Naming a savvy executor is a trickier level of decision-making, but it can be pretty important.
Also, give serious thought to every order in which people might die, including you. Make sure your estate will always end up where you want it to go. Make sure it covers every possibility.
Details aren’t material here but because of the order in which my uncles died, I will eventually end up with all of something when the lifelong clearly stated verbal intent was that this be divided between me and a cousin.
My grandmother (who worked for Metro Nashville’s Pension/Retirement Program) always said that through estate planning was the last best gift she could give to her children. She didn’t have very much to leave, but her passing was made easier because she named which of her children was to be in charge (critical!), and she left detailed instructions and copies of all important papers in her desk at home. My mom knew where everything was, and the broad outlines of what my grandmother wanted long before it was necessary. My parents have done the same for me. I hope it’s a long time before I need to open that drawer, but I have the key to the safe, access to the paperwork, am legally listed as the PoA, and I know what their wishes are. I drew up the same sorts of documents myself. If my life changes, I can change the documents. But everyone should do estate planning every few years as life circumstances warrant. Thanks for the reminder, John, and well done in your dealings with the Piper estate. You continue to educate us all on the business of writing, and in How to Be A Decent Human Being.
Yeah, I need to do this. My parents already have, and gave me a list of where to find all the various accounts and boxes where things are (then again, my father was a banker before he retired).
I knew friends of one person that had this sort of problem happen, back in the early nineties. The person in question was a cartoonist, mostly fanzines and independent comic books. Friendly guy, good artist, and a wonderful slice of life storyteller. His parents disliked his work because he was ‘wasting’ it on ‘trivial childish things’ like comic books.
He came down sick, and his doctors tried to convince both him and his fiancee that it wasn’t that bad. Unfortunately, it was that bad, he died without a will, and all his stuff got handed back to his only family, who just threw it all out. (Much to the annoyance of his fiancee who told me at one point that if the doctors had been more honest about his prognosis, she would have brought somebody in to marry them at the bedside just to save his work.)
Yeah, think about a literary executor. There was this one playwright who wrote a wonderful first play, which was produced quite a few places on the West Coast. It never got any productions elsewhere because the playwright died before finishing his second play and the family was too broken up about it to consider further productions of that very good first play.
Good advice for everyone.
The one bit you missed is the durable medical power of attorney. That’s before the “sorting out the stuff” phase of things, but equally overlooked and frequently generating family drama/tragedy.
I want to point out that the long and messy probate process in California takes over a year, usually, and the lawyer earns a disproportionate fee compared to a Trust Administration. Probate is a stupid way to transfer your money.
Our office does most of these things, advance health care directives, durable power of attorney (financial), Trusts, Wills, Conservatorship, and so on. Families with young kids often get a document that states who gets the kids when they die in the Hindenburg reenactment.
I have many fascinating stories about what families do to each other after the death of a loved one. It brings out the worst or the best in them. Mostly, it’s the worst. You see vicious and nasty attacks by black sheep children, and other children screwing over their siblings to the tune of 10s to 100s of thousands of dollars. “But mom didn’t want what was in her will in trust, she really wanted me to have it all!” Or in another case, a person planted a fake will in the decedent’s files after they died. “The decedent loved me too much to have left me nothing, check for the REAL will.” mmmmhmm. Sure, yeah, okay.
If you are in doubt in any way, shape, or form about the character of any of your heirs or beneficiaries, do the trust and will. Those kids who are behaving now will often turn into monsters the moment your body is cooling in the morgue. Did I mention the cases where one of the kids has the keys to mom’s house, and as soon as mom dies, they clean out all the jewelry of value and then pretend to know nothing?
Yep, it happens. All the time.
One thing I haven’t seen mentioned – if you have a job with an EAP, check for basic legal stuff like wills. I did a simple one through mine, through the website, so that if nothing else “split everything amongst my kids” is in writing and my adult son knows where and what everything is. Ask HR! You may have stuff available you don’t even know about!
When reading about literary estates, I always think of noir master Cornell Woolwich. A notorious recluse, who was an only child and died childless, he has remained in print with handsome new editions coming along frequently. Why? He left his literary estate to Columbia University, where he had briefly attended. It funds scholarships for writing students. So if your family situation is complicated, your alma mater will probably be around for quite a while and has good intellectual property lawyers.
I need to tweak my will a bit, but the bulk of my estate (including all my research notes and my books) will go to Smith College, with the proceeds from the real estate and whatever funds are left going to endow a lecture series on medieval textiles. It’s a great way to ensure that my college gets something good and my research is properly archived.
Good advice. Will take it in a few years when I am no longer a minor. :P
If you’re in Australia the Public Trustee does wills for people for free (you just need to make an appointment and they tell you what to bring along) and then stores the wills too. I don’t know how they’d go with something like intellectual property but it might be a starting point if you can’t afford a solicitor. A colleague of mine had quite complex provisions around care for a child who she has permanent guardianship over and they were very helpful.
Thanks for the reminder. I just pulled up my to-do list and put “Finish will” back in the top ten. Maybe this time I’ll catch it before it ratchets back down and out of sight again. :)
PKD died on 2 March 1982. On 25 June 1982, a film called Blade Runner was released. That might have had something to do with PKD’s massive post-mortem success.
That’s a somewhat unusual case. More generally, post-mortem fame has a large element of dumb luck, just like pre-mortem fame does. Someone (friend, relative, agent, publisher, critic) happens to get hold of the work, love it, and promote it assiduously, and it finds a following among the public.
When my husband was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s last year, at the age of 62, we decided to do wills, etc. before he got to the point where he was no longer competent. We also bought a funeral trust for him, and started one for myself. No kids, any $$ left over after we’re both dead (considering costs of even veteran’s nursing homes, may not be much … ) goes to my sister and her son, his parents if still alive, and various charities. Plus I made provisions in my will for $$ to go to him if/when in nursing home for ‘personal items’ if I die before he does. I would add to the health insurance idea – I don’t care how young you are, look into buying long-term health care insurance. People are coming down with various forms of dementia younger and younger; as young as mid 30s and 40s… it’s not just affecting those in their late 60s and beyond any more. And you can live a good 5 to 15 years after being diagnosed….
I second the recommendation on getyourshittogether.org and the question about services available to the less well-off. Does SFWA offer anything of this sort? Other associations of creative types?
I’m a software engineer and sold my soul to the financial industry, so I’m all wil-ified, but I know many creative types who aren’t. They’d be more likely to do so if it didn’t come down to a choice between that and paying next month’s rent.
John, you must know as well as I do that NOTHING new is ever going to pass into the public domain. Every time we get close to the Dread Mouse losing copyright, Disney will simply go back to Congress and have them tack another 20 years on to the term. Just like last time. And the time before that.
Makes your advice all the more critical – everything after the early 1920s is going to be an orphan work someday…
terribly sorry to hear that. I can’t imagine how hard that must be. Taking care of my father after his second stroke was hard, but nothing on that. A reminder to get our stuff in order. (apropos of nothing: I used to be in your Saint Seiya APA back in the day. I still have them collected in my bookshelves.)
This is good advice.
The tough part, for me, is bringing up the subject without my mother deciding it means I am about to kill myself.
Yet another lawyer chiming in: +1 to the attorney referral service run by the bar association of the state in which you live. Any medium-sized business firm will likely have both an IP team and a trusts and estates team, so they will have the bench depth to handle any issues that your writerly/creative profession might cause. Editorially, it’s our privilege to serve you, so find someone who treats you right. Establish a budget to get the thing done, and hold them to it.
I will also add to the voices saying “create and periodically update your will/estate plan.” Classic case: At age 40-something, you establish a trust and put all the IP inside. You live for decades longer, write ten more books, countless short stories and a screenplay. None of it becomes trust property because you don’t do whatever your state requires to make that happen each time. So you’re looking not just for a lawyer, but for a lawyer that will nag you occasionally for updates and ensure that you’re properly documenting any necessary steps to ensure that the plan continues to function.
I’m not your lawyer, hugs and kisses, &c.
Conversely, for those of us who don’t have intellectual property to leave, the will can be as simple as “I leave everything to my beloved spouse so-and-so. If I die first, divide my stuff equally between A, B, and C. If we all die in the same blimp accident, everything goes to the Bronx Zoo.” That residuary legatee is a somewhat arbitrary choice, but I like them and am confident they’ll be around a while. (In the most technical sense I might have intellectual property, given that work is copyrighted as soon as I press “save” or put the pen to the page, but I don’t expect anybody to care about all those LiveJournal posts a decade after I’m dead.)
Also, I second the point about being sure the lawyer you hire knows about estate law. A relative of mine hired the wrong lawyer, and a bit of careless wording about “cousins” left the executor needing to track down cousins in Israel who hadn’t spoken to anyone in the family in a couple of decades, not to say “here is your share of Hanni’s estate” but “I need to formally confirm that you aren’t challenging this will.”
Hate to contradict the lawyers in the thread, but at least where I live there’s a way to make “will in safe deposit box” work. Mom’s will is there, along with her living will and a few more important end-of-life papers. When she got the box, she also got my brother and I to take a couple hours off work and come to the bank with her to sign the paperwork; he and I can legally access the box even after Mom (eventually) dies.
She’s planning to add our names to the checking account as well, in case there’s any unplanned expenses between death and distribution of the estate.
(Granted, all of this works because the family is feud-free.)
This thread reminds me that I also need to get off my butt and get the paperwork filed to donate my body to the med school after I die.
You didn’t mention it, but at the same time take care of your medical power of attorney!
Talk it all over, and have back-up people there too.
It’s not a thing you want to be trying to fill out in the ER.
And, yes, consider the ages of all involved when you are making these decisions.
An aunt usefully listed her (older) brother-in-law, spouse’s dad, as executor/trustee with no alternative given, which was lots of fun after he’d died first and she’d become gaga.
And, yes, trusts are a lot easier and cheaper to deal with than wills.
But remember you have to move assets into them!
Also, if there is stuff that you really care about, and want your children to have, consider passing it along before you die.
When your kids start setting themselves up as adults, start giving them bits and pieces.
Give yourself the pleasure of passing things along while you can still see them being enjoyed.
Oh, by the way.
Universities and colleges actually suck at using inherited money for specific purposes, especially over time.
If you want the money you donate to them to actually be used as you direct, confer with an experienced lawyer about how to tie it up securely.
Yes, yes, yes, A thousand times yes. Having just seen what a close friend had to go through when his writer wife died, I can say that a an unexpected death is made incomparably worse when there is no estate planning.
Yes, yes, yes, A thousand times yes. Having just seen what a close friend had to go through when his writer wife died, I can say that a an unexpected death is made incomparably worse when there is no estate planning.
Sigh. Excellent advice which I would LOVE to follow. I live abroad, one of over 8 million Americans who do so. American law states that wills must be drafted according to state law. if you do not reside in a US state you are crap out of luck. You cannot write a will. It is the most ridiculous situation imaginable.
Everyone should have a will and unless you are a hermit a power of attorney too. For creative types it is important but doubly so for anyone with children, if they are under age you want to make decisions for them not the state. For adult children do you want them fighting over your belongings? Lastly once you have your documents in place make sure you review them at least every 4 years.
The idea that a writer could, after his death, have his work withdrawn from the public by his surviving family (well-intended or otherwise) is quite shocking to me, Particularly if, as you suspect, it would be actually contrary to that writer’s wishes. Such a thing had never occurred to me before.
I can’t agree more. My husband works as a financial adviser helping people with retirement and estate planning and it’s rewarding to know that he can help people when they are planning their estate, so that when they are grieving the loss of a loved one, they don’t have to worry about how they are going to afford to keep their house or send their kids to college.
Beyond the whole Intellectual Property issue, think of all the books. Most of us have pretty large libraries of paperbacks and hardcovers. If your heirs don’t share your taste in books, make a plan about who is supposed to get the books. Otherwise they may just get piled in a dumpster.
I don’t do wills and estates work, but occasionally clients ask whether they need wills . I tell them yes. I say that without a will, the state will distribute your assets in a particular way. That way may not be the way you want it distributed (it usually isn’t).
One worry they always have is cost. It is usually not much. For a simple estate it can done for $250.00; lawyers in my community will do a will, if asked, for free if they are doing other legal work for you. This is one case where our reputation as a high cost service does real harm.
I also advise clients to use a lawyer for all but the simplest Wills. Many of my clients won’t have simple wills.
I have also had at least two clients die in the midst of litigation and their litigation died with them for lack of a will and the lack of anyone to instruct me.
As an accountant with an estate planning practice (and a huge fan), I applaud you. I am curious as to whether you made any provisions for your twitter account and your blog, and if so, whether they were incorporated into your legal documents.
Addendum to the people recommending NOLO books: you can typically check these out from the public library for free. I can’t speak for all library systems, but the four different systems I’ve worked for have all carried them, so it’s worth checking.