Anyone who is making money from their copyright should consider how to incorporate their copyright into their estate plan. Including your copyright will maximize the chances of the copyright staying profitable once the author is no longer in control. That said, some special considerations for estate planning for musicians will be addressed here.

An important item to note with music copyrights is that there are multiple copyrights involved in a single song. The composition (i.e., the musical score) has its own copyright, and if the lyrics were composed separately from the score, then each will have its own separate copyright. Each recording of the song also has its own copyright, and there may be derivatives with their own copyright as well (e.g. ringtones). So there are a lot of moving parts to keep track of with a musical piece.

As to what happens to your copyrights, if a musician dies without a will or trust, their copyrights will pass to their heirs at law, usually their closest blood relatives. Suppose a musician does have a will or trust. In that case, their copyrights will go to their designated beneficiaries (if the copyrights are not specifically addressed, then they are part of the “remainder” or “residue” and go to the remainder beneficiaries).

With copyrights, it’s important to think about who you want to manage the copyrights and who you want to receive the royalty income. They may not be the same people – in many cases, the people a musician wants to benefit from the copyrights does not have the knowledge or desire to actively manage them. Since the management of a music portfolio can be complex, it’s a good idea to have a manager with some experience or who can be trained in advance so they can hit the ground running when the time comes. With a trust, you can keep the copyrights in trust and name a special trustee to manage them and send the profits to your beneficiaries. (This is assuming that you’re currently managing your copyrights yourself – outsourcing is always an option.)

And last but certainly not least, musicians need to consider rights management companies for music, most notably ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC. Most songwriters are a member of at least one of these organizations, who make sure royalties are paid for every performance of their music. While these companies do have procedures to make it easy to transfer royalty payments to a deceased member’s beneficiaries, it’s important to let your beneficiaries know which organization you belong to. And you probably already know this, but you should make sure your beneficiaries know that these organizations only manage licensing and royalties for public performance – all other rights still need to be managed by the copyright owner.

If you have questions about how to incorporate your musical copyrights into your estate plan or would like help with estate planning for musicians, authors, or other artists, please feel free to email me at

Kelly Way Attorney pic and bio Kelley Way was born and raised in Walnut Creek, California. She graduated from UC Davis with a B.A. in English, followed by a Juris Doctorate. Kelley is a member of the California Bar and an aspiring writer of young adult fantasy novels.