Selecting a Literary Executor
By Lloyd Jassin and Ronald Finkelstein
"I'm sorry to have my name mentioned among the great authors because
they have the sad habit of dying off."
"Money is the root of all evil"
For I will write in my will
"I regret that I was not able to love money more."
--Jack Kerouac, from "238th Chorus" Mexico City Blues
While great writers may have the sad habit of
dying off, their literary legacies (and royalty checks) tend to live
on. In the case of Jack Kerouac, who died in 1969, his original manuscript
of "On the Road" recently sold at auction for $2.43 million.
Conservative estimates put the value of Kerouac's estate at $10 million.
If books or plays comprise a substantial part of your assets, now is
the time to consider tax and estate planning issues. This article deals
with one aspect of estate planning -- the administration of your copyrights,
letters, unpublished papers and contractual relations after you have
taken your last bow and the proverbial curtain has come down.
If you are a novelist, playwright, lyricist or composer, advance planning
is critical to ensure that your literary legacy is protected after you
die. While during your life you can play catch-up with legal formalities,
unless you have a well-drafted will, or have created a valid trust for
the benefit of others, you have left ownership and care of your copyrighted
works and papers largely to chance. In addition, finding a long-term,
nurturing home for your papers or work should not be left for the last
|TIP: Be sure to bear in mind that there is a clear distinction
between the physical possession of letters and papers on the one
hand and ownership of the copyrights in those letters and papers
on the other. While your papers may reside in a university library,
the copyright to those letters and papers would belong to your estate.
Authors should consider naming a "Literary Executor"
in their will. An "executor" is a person responsible for settling
a deceased person's estate. Among the duties of a General Executor --
as opposed to Literary Executor -- are contacting an attorney to file
a petition for probate of the will; collecting debts owed to the estate;
filing for life insurance and other benefits; contacting an accountant
(or attorney) to prepare the decedent's final income tax returns, a
federal estate tax return and state estate and inheritance tax returns
as may be required; and notifying the beneficiaries named in the will.
A Literary Executor, as opposed to a General Executor, is the person
selected for the limited purpose of managing your literary property
when you pass on. One court described the Literary Executor's role as
"requir[ing] a delicate balance between economic enhancement and
cultural nurture." If you have made the appropriate provisions
in your will, your Literary Executor will distribute all of the literary
property that you owned at the time of your death.
The Literary Executor, acting on behalf of the beneficiaries under your
will (e.g. family members, a designated charity, a research library
or archive), will be responsible for entering into contracts with publishers,
collecting royalties, maintaining your copyrights, and (where
appropriate) arranging for the deposit of your letters, unpublished
manuscripts, and other literary materials with a suitable university
library or historical society. It bears emphasizing that your Literary
Executor also has the right -- under the Copyright Act -- to terminate
certain transfers and licenses granted by you during your lifetime,
including music publishing and production contracts. Beware! The process
of getting back copyrights is perplexing and contains many traps for
Selecting a Literary Executor
A General Executor will often be a spouse or other family member that
does not have experience with literary matters. Therefore, you should
consider entrusting the care of your papers, existing contracts and
unpublished manuscripts to a Literary Executor. Keep in mind that being
a Literary Executor can be a lot of work. By taking the time to carefully
select a Literary Executor, you lessen the likelihood of intra-family
disputes that could result in family members refusing to negotiate for
the further exploitation of your works -- preferring instead to retire
your copyrighted works from publication. And, if your final wish is
that your unfinished play based on your aunt Hilda's lesbian affair
go unpublished and unproduced, you can provide in your will that your
Literary Executor destroy your manuscript. By way of example: Ernest
Hemingway made it clear during his lifetime that he did not want his
unfinished and unpublished stories published. However, since his will
was silent on this subject, his estate published not only his early
stories, but also two unfinished novels after his death. Of course,
both novels received poor reviews.
Ideally, your Literary Executor should be someone who understands how
the theater world and entertainment industry operates. That person should
also be comfortable with negotiating contracts, or savvy enough to hire
an attorney or literary agent to help exploit unpublished works, or
exploit rights that were retained by your estate. As mentioned previously,
your Literary Executor should also be someone who will carry out your
intentions. And, since all things come to an end -- including Literary
Executors -- you should provide in your will for a replacement when
the estate's Literary Executor dies or becomes incapacitated.
Defining the Literary Executor's Duties
Because the duties and powers of a Literary Executor are not defined
by statute, it is imperative that the person drafting your will take
great care in describing the scope of your Literary Executor's duties.
The powers of a Literary Executor should be as broad and comprehensive
as possible, unless, of course, you believe there should be limitations,
qualifications or conditions imposed upon your Literary Executor (e.g.,
different executors appointed for book publishing and theatre-related
In preparing the powers of a Literary Executor, you must consider the
Will the Literary Executor have the sole and exclusive
right to make all decisions regarding appropriate publication, republication,
sale, license or other exploitation of your work? Or, should she
merely be appointed as an advisor to the General Executor?
While a family member may agree to work for free, attorneys and literary
agents will most likely seek a fee of between 10% and 15% for new contracts
they negotiate on behalf of the estate. With regard to administering
existing contracts, fee arrangements can vary greatly depending upon
the size of the literary estate and the responsibilities of the Literary
In some instances, an author may create a lifetime (inter-vivos)
trust and transfer literary assets to the trust. In this case, a trustee
will be appointed to carry out responsibilities similar to an Executor.
In such instances, the author appoints a "Literary Trustee"
who acts in much the same manner as a "Literary Executor"
would under a decedent's will. Furthermore, if an author names trusts
as beneficiaries under his will and literary assets will be transferred
to such trusts, then the author must also name, in addition to a Literary
Executor, a Literary Trustee (who would be the same person) in order
to continue acting in such a capacity after the literary assets have
been transferred to the trusts.
If you have accumulated enough wealth so that your assets will be subject
to an estate tax upon your death, then the Executor will be responsible
for valuing all of your assets at that time, including manuscripts,
copyrights and contractual rights derived from the publication and reproduction
of your works. The Executor (or Literary Executor, as the case may be)
should hire an appraiser with significant experience in appraising --
or valuing -- these interests. Authors with significant estates should
meet with their attorney or accountant now to determine whether any
lifetime planning can be employed to reduce the value of their estates
at their death so that more assets can pass to their heirs.
(c) 2002 Lloyd J. Jassin and Ronald Finkelstein. All rights reserved.
(Lloyd Jassin, Esq. is an entertainment attorney and coauthor of The
Copyright Permission and Libel Handbook (John Wiley & Sons).
He has offices in The Actors' Equity Bldg., 1560 Broadway, Ste. 400,
NYC, 10036. He can be reached at 212-354-4442 or by e-mail at Jassin@copylaw.com, or you can visit his firms website at www.copylaw.com)
(Ronald Finkelstein, Esq. is a Tax Manager with the accounting firm
of Marcum & Kleigman LLP and is a member of the firm's Trusts and
Estates Group. He can be reached at 212-981-3096 or by e-mail at email@example.com)
NOTICE: This article discusses general legal issues of interest
and is not designed to give any specific legal advice pertaining to
any specific circumstances. It is important that professional legal
advice be obtained before acting upon any of the information contained
in this article.