07 Dec 2015
An author’s estate leaves behind something potentially more valuable than money, insurance policies, collectible Beanie Babies, and other valuables. We have intellectual property: books, unpublished works, and personal papers. Complete works that can be republished; incomplete works and ideas that can be finished. If you don’t decide what will be done with them, someone else will do it for you, and perhaps in ways you did not intend. A will not only determines what happens to your literary legacy, but also who benefits from it.
Without a Will, There’s No Way
Franz Kafka asked his friend Max Brod to destroy all his stories. He didn’t. Vladimir Nabokov wanted his unfinished works destroyed. The notecards for his last unfinished novel, “The Original of Laura” appeared. John Steinbeck’s children and his last spouse have been in and out of court since his death in 1968 fighting over his money and rights to his works.
Not all wills are perfect, but dying without one, or one that does not follow the law, is a recipe for disaster. When Stieg Larsson died of a heart attack, he left his possessions to one of Sweden’s political parties. Sweden rejected that will because it was not witnessed, as well as claims from his unmarried partner of 30 years. The estate, including the rights and royalties to his “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” series, went to his father and brother.
At least Larsson’s family was interested in keeping his works in print. There are numerous instances of family members making decisions that would have horrified the author. They run the gamut of letting the author’s works go out of print because they were embarrassed by their subject matter, to asking outrageous amounts for reprint rights.
Even a finished, legally binding will can cause problems if it’s not updated. R.A. Lafferty, considered by many to be one of the great short-story writers of science-fiction, left his estate to his sister. He came down with Alzheimer’s, and she died while he was in a nursing home. Because a secondary heir was not named in his will, his estate was divided among the surviving relatives, who all had to agree on any publishing deal. This proved so contentious that the family auctioned off all the rights to all his works.
Prepare Your Last Words
The best way to ensure that your wishes are known is to have a will. A good place to start is at Neil Gaiman’s website. Moved by the plight of his friend John M. Ford, whose family blocked republication of his books after he died (without a will), he posted a sample will created with the help of lawyer and author Les Klinger. It sets up a trust, run by whoever you name, who will share the royalties and decide on the disposition of your intellectual property.
I used it as the basis of my will, which was looked over by a lawyer and tweaked to conform to the State of Pennsylvania’s laws. In addition, he also set up procedures that will handle making medical decisions and other legal issues. For only a couple hundred dollars, I ensured that my family can financially benefit from my work after I’m gone.
They don’t know it now, but years from now, it’ll probably be my children’s favorite story.