01-19-19 – Judith Ashley – My Sanctuaries and Safe Havens: Writing and Spiritual Practices

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

A Stroll on the Estate Side

by M. L. Buchman

I'm going to break from the fiction side of romance and writing this month and I'm going to take a peek under the curtains of the non-fiction side. Specifically, Estate Planning.

Now don't run away screaming (assuming you haven't already). These are actually practical thoughts that apply to any type of artist...or even if you just wish you were better organized on behalf of your heirs.

A Bit of Background
There I was merrily writing away, enjoying myself in the wondrous world of romance. Short stories, novels, series...I was having a great time! My wife co-operates our publishing business and is an awesome assistant as well. (I married a research librarian, what can I say. I love librarians! Literally, in her case.)

Anyway, there I was, writing happily along and she said, "There's no way I can do what you do for the business. I'm so screwed if you die first, so you're not allowed to. Period." When someone as mild-mannered as a librarian lays down an edict, it's time to pay attention.

So, I started looking at how I could organize all my "stuff" so that she had a chance of dealing with it. Or worse yet, my kid, who has had no part in the business beyond being amazingly supportive while growing up. ("Everything is fine here. Now go to your room and write." I was always reluctant to leave the family evenings, even when they ordered me to do so.) What could I do to organize it for my kid?

So here's the outline of the solution that took me over a year of research to formulate.

Step 1
Make sure you have a will. Half of Americans don't. If you die intestate (without a will), who knows where your writings will go. Some states take 1/2 right off the top for the simple pain of having to deal with an intestate mess. If your will mentions how you want your writings handled? Whoo-hoo! You're way out in front.

Step 1a
Look into setting up a trust(s), if your estate is big enough. Simply put, a trust is a legal thing (just like a will or a company is a legal thing) that let's you bundle your estate into a single place, which can then be given to an heir literally "in trust." Consult with a lawyer and a CPA to make this happen. Why a trust? A couple of reasons:

  1. The estate moves directly to the heir without getting bogged down in probate court (the folks who deal with settling estates). Publishing is an active business, having to clear every action with a court for a year or more adds a whole layer of pain to managing that business. 
  2. Not pushing a big block of writing through probate court, also decreases the costs of probate.
  3. By not going through probate, your trust remains private. Probate is public record.
  4. However, a trust takes time and money to set up. It's probably not worth it for a few novels and a dozen short stories (unless you happen to have written To Kill a Mockingbird).

But all that is just the legal crap. It doesn't address the bottom line: the FEAR that I discovered possessed my heirs souls. The FEAR that I might do something as ridiculous as dying some day.

Step 2
Organize your writing. The chances of your legacy outliving you are vastly improved if your heirs can find your writings.

  • Are they stored in five different cloud accounts to which no one knows the passwords?
  • Are they stored on one computer...but you've never backed it up offsite? A single house fire (as happened to a friend back in the typewriter and paper-copies-only day) or even a computer thief passing through, and all of your writings could be gone.
  • They're all in one place and backed up? Great! Are they so disorganized that even you have trouble finding the files? Hmmm.
  • Don't forget to organize your printed files as well (such as contracts!).
Step 3 (and this was the real key for me)
Educate your heirs. 
  • If all your work is stored in one place and well backed up, do your heirs have a clue where, or how they're stored?
  • What about how to access your passwords? (All stored in Dashlane? What's the password to that? In your head doesn't help matters. And what about someone hacking them and suddenly getting all your passwords. Bad news.)
  • Once they have access to all your work, do your heirs have any idea on how to go about managing it!?!?!
That last one was the real sticker for me.

My Solution? The "Final Letter"
I composed a "Final Letter" to my heirs that explained, in plain English, what was going on with my writings. Not instructions, those are in the will and I don't want to leave behind conflicting instructions. Rather, an informational letter that told them:
a) where everything is
b) how to access it
c) what other professional writers they could call for help
d) different ways and opportunities for managing my writings

When I went over this dozen-page letter with them, they were ecstatic and the fear (or at least the worst of it) went away. Other writers began begging me for this solution. I have presented it at several professional conferences, with more to come. I finally wrote down what I did and how you can do this for yourself.

I think that in many ways, this is the single most important book I've ever written. Copyright law protects my writing for my life plus 70 years. That's a long time past my demise. This book will help my work outlive me and, far more importantly to me, profit my heirs. I love that my writing will help support my kid and eventual grandkids.

Think about your estate and think about them. The time for planning is before you accidentally fall over dead. Just sayin'.

Released July 25th, 2017 (in audio very soon too!)

Best of luck!


Judith Ashley said...

Thanks for the reminder, Matt. I got the organization of my books and short stories done but haven't finished the rest of the list. I meet with my CPA in a week or so. I'll discuss 'trust' with him and I'll also be seeing my granddaughters around the same time so I'll put this on my 'to talk about' list. Because one of the things I've done and still do is assist people with their affairs when their health and cognitive functioning fails, I'm all to aware of how important this is!!! And, even if it costs money now, it is less expensive than paying someone to organize, etc. after you're gone or when you're no longer competent to do so.

M. L. Buchman said...

Absolutely! Organize now! I didn't rush and it's taken most of a year, but my estate is in so much better shape now. Only a few more steps to go.