I work with a lot of authors. Since I offer both copyright and estate planning services, I am often asked what happens to an author’s copyrights when they die, especially if they don’t have a will or trust. And if you own a copyright, you may also wonder what happens to my copyrights when I die?
The answer is simple for those who do have a will or trust: the copyrights go to whoever you have designated in your will or trust. If your will or trust says nothing about your copyrights, then they are part of the “residue” or “remainder,” i.e., everything you didn’t specifically address. So if you leave everything to your first cousin Bob, that will include your copyrights.
For those who do not have a will or trust, the copyrights are a part of your estate, i.e., everything you own in your own name. Your estate goes to your surviving spouse and children, or if you have neither, then to your heirs at law, which usually means your closest blood relatives. The Probate Code provides guidance on figuring out who your legal heirs are, though I wouldn’t recommend reading through it unless you’re having trouble falling asleep.
Some things to keep in mind here:
If you don’t expressly state who you want to receive your copyrights, then they will be co-owned by all your beneficiaries (or, if there is no will or trust, by your heirs at law). All of them will have equal ownership, meaning they all need to be in agreement to get anything done. That said, some rights can be granted without getting everyone’s permission, so if there’s a rebel in the family, they can cause some chaos, granting nonexclusive licenses and telling the others after the fact. I generally advocate having just one, or possibly two, people in charge of the copyrights to make ongoing management easier for everyone.
In addition, copyrights are considered a “probate-able” asset, which means that, when determining the value of an estate to see if probate is required, the copyrights should be included in that valuation. (At the time of this article, probate is required if the estate is worth more than approximately $180,000.) If a copyright is valuable enough, it is possible that it would trigger a probate of the person’s estate, which is another reason why authors should get their copyrights out of their estates and into a trust or corporation.
If you have more questions about what happens to your copyrights when you die, or if you would like to create a will or trust that includes your copyrights, please feel free to reach out to me at email@example.com.