Monday, March 24, 2008

Vital Estate and Will Planning Tips for Writers by Jane Corn: An Idea First Suggested by Author Neil Gaiman

Please join MB4 in welcoming Jane Corn, today's guest blogger.

Jane Corn is a fervent reader and writer. A freelancer, her passion for books helped drive her to top reviewer status on, allowing her access to the exclusive Vine™ Program, pushed her to Powerseller status on eBay, and is the focus of one of her many blogs, Booking Along (a book review blog). Her magazine writing has won national awards, and she manages a widespread online presence, including social networking sites and blogs. You can find Jane online at Associated Content, her online rare bookstore and of course, at Booking Along.


Noted fantasy and science fiction writer Neil Gaiman is a favorite of one of our sons. How you feel about Gaiman (love him, hate him, lukewarm) is not relevant to this article, however.

I’m mentioning the name for one reason. Gaiman had the good sense to write about the importance of “literary estates” of writers and how every author, famous or not, needs a will. Of course, everyone with heirs should have a will. But if you don’t have heirs, take a moment and think about what you envision happening to your books, unpublished manuscripts, short stories and other work when you die.

Maybe you already have a will Even so, I suggest you look at Gaiman’s blog on the subject here:

Gaiman noted that John M. Ford, a mentor for Gaiman, had not had a will. This caused a huge mess after his death.

After reading that, I called a librarian at the Special Collections, Rare Books and University Archives at a university library in my town and discovered that the information mentioned by Gaiman is still vital for writers to know.

Otherwise, your work could go to your heirs or…if you’ve bequeathed everything to your favorite pet, the dog or cat gets to decide how to dispose of your work – or the trustee in charge of said cat or dog. If this is fine by you, no problem. If not, read on.

Here is what you need to know:

1. You have certain copyright and intellectual property rights over your work while living. As many writers have discovered, HAVING the rights and keeping someone from stealing, using or abusing your work may be two different things, especially on the internet.

But at least you have those rights and some legal recourse.

2. When you die without a will, all bets are off. The term you need to learn, quickly, if you don’t have a will is “intestate”. Because estate planning and wills can be a complicated issue, the bottom line is that if you die without a will, things can get very messy, and end
up in court.

Your writings could be divided in ways you didn’t want. Maybe a son would get your unpublished manuscript while Aunt Martha got the short stories. Avoid that. Have a will. The librarian told me some shocking stories of heirs who immediately destroyed vital works of famous writers (maybe in a temporary snit about not getting some cold, hard cash).

3. Even if your published writing is already covered in your will, don’t assume your unpublished writing is equally protected. Make a stipulation that notes your published AND unpublished writing goes to a certain someone or group of heirs. If you want your collection of writings to stay together, make sure this is duly noted and make provisions and stipulations for this.

4. Consider downloading the simple will at Gaiman’s blog (above) and take it to an intellectual property lawyer, have it witnessed and signed properly. Then breathe a little easier. Make sure the lawyer notes that everything has been done legally, looks over the documents and updates the information.

5. Keep up with the latest information about intellectual property law and literary estates. One place to start? at the FindLaw website.

6. If you are famous or plan to be, consider donating your works to a library, archive or repository. This is a controversial and risky move but it may be your best chance of keeping all your work in one place, even if the library later sells it. It isn’t a move to make lightly, though. Know the risks and benefits.

Having been to many library book sales, I know that librarians do divide up author collections, even of rare works. Still, you have some negotiating room, especially if you are famous. Many libraries will try to get both intellectual and property rights to your work (when it becomes viable) but you may be able to add some stipulations. If you have no heirs, this could be worth investigating.

If you write just “for the fun of it” and pooh-pooh the importance of all this, consider the historical or other value of even obscure writing. In time, some of that material gains importance. So play it safe. Protect your literary legacy!


Marta Stephens said...

Jane, thank you so much for posting this valuable information. The thought, "What if..." has crossed my mind more than once. It's always better to be prepared and now I know how. :)

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Ditto, Jane. I have often wondered who would keep the LeGarde series going, or at least see to my half dozen as yet unpublished works. Wow - I never really thought it through and this is incredibly useful. Thanks!