An Estate Full of Books

15 March 2012

Dean Wesley Smith has a long post detailing his travails in settling an estate of a long-time friend and big-time book collector.


He was a major book collector and hoarder. He carefully protected every book and pulp magazine he got and had a fantastic memory of everything he owned. He also was a huge source of information about books, authors, and collecting. But he also saved every publisher catalog and every piece of paper decade after decade after decade.

His home only had a trail through it and his apartment was the same. But he only collected top quality stuff, so every pile had stunning books, pulps, and art in them. He had one chair in his apartment and no place to sit in his home. Even his garage was stacked to the ceiling with boxes of books and magazines I had managed to help him get on pallets to protect ten years ago.

The picture on the right is looking in the front door of his home. Up until now, Larry Woodside and I were the only people who were in that building in the last ten years.

. . . .

So the day after Bill died, I sat down in his chair and started through the piles of paper beside his chair that he had said the will was in. After two days of searching, I found a will. It only had Larry’s signature on it, but honestly I didn’t think much about that. I figured Bill and Larry had redone it at some point and it was basically the same as I remembered. So I made an appointment with an attorney and showed him the will the next day. He flipped it back to me and said, and I quote. “It’s not valid.”

You see, in Oregon, intent of the dead person does not matter. And a will must have at least two witnesses. And since Bill had no relatives, if his will didn’t hold, the State of Oregon would get everything. And they would auction it all off, the very thing Bill did not want to happen to his collections.

So after a short hour or two of panic, Kris told me she had a firm memory of witnessing a will for Bill and her name was not on the will we showed the attorney. So another will just had to be there in the piles of paper somewhere. So back into the stacks of paper I went and another two days later I had found two more wills. Both with enough signatures, thankfully. Both with the same terms. One just dated about six months after the other.

So I took the most recent will to my attorney here on the coast and he glanced at it and said, and I quote. “It’s not valid.”

The reason? The witness signatures had not been notarized.

Link to the rest at Dean Wesley Smith

Here are a few general tips about wills and estates:

  1. Sign your will in your attorney’s office. That way, it will be properly witnessed, notarized, etc.
  2. If you sign a new will, immediately destroy all your old wills so nobody tries to process one that is out of date.
  3. Tell several people where you are keeping your original will.
  4. Send a copy of your will to the person who will be your executor (sometimes called a personal representative) and to the person who you designated as a backup executor if #1 can’t serve. Your attorney will probably also keep a copy of your will. If the original cannot be found, most states have a process whereby a copy can be used.
  5. Specifically provide in your will that if the executor requires assistance in collecting, inventorying, storing, delivering, etc., your property that he/she is authorized to obtain such assistance as he/she deems reasonably necessary and is authorized to pay the reasonable cost of such assistance from the estate and/or be reimbursed for such costs from the estate. This permission can probably be routinely obtained from the probate judge, but a provision in the will can avoid a trip to court.
  6. PG won’t go into the organizational steps you can take to make your executor’s life easier, but authors should make certain copies of all publishing contracts and agency agreements are collected in a place where they can be located.
  7. For self-published authors, the executor will have to send a bunch of court documents to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple, Kobo, etc., to transfer ongoing royalties to an estate bank account while the estate is open, then to whomever is to receive such royalties after the estate is closed. The estate attorney will likely be involved with this.

As you’ll note, Dean says his wife, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, will be posting estate suggestions in the future.

The usual estate is not as much trouble as the one Dean describes, but acting as an executor will take some time. Last week, PG declined to serve as an executor for an estate of a non-relative because of the time required. You should ask for permission before you name someone as your executor.

Dean Wesley Smith, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, The Business of Writing

4 Comments to “An Estate Full of Books”

  1. As an estate planning attorney (pays the bills) and an author (paying bills), I could not agree more. I see this all too often–the decedent avoided attorneys (we’re not all horrible!) and the result turns out to be precisely the opposite of what they wanted (wrong heirs and their poor executor spends three times as much time and money with an attorney). I have a case now where the decedent executed six different wills in as many months, each time changing only how they were witnessed and by whom and he never did get it right. His intended-to-be-disinherited nephews will be thrilled with his mistakes. Good advice you are giving here!

    • As a follow-up to Teresa’s comment, I always included handling the execution and witnessing of the will at no charge above my fee for drafting the will. Every attorney I knew in those days did the same thing.

  2. I am still amazed however by how often I see that an attorney mailed the documents to the client for the client to sign on their own. No matter how detailed the instructions given in the (not read and probably thrown away) cover letter, the client inevitably gets it wrong. There’s a formality to signing a legal document and that requires the lawyers participation. And yes, usually the signing is part of the fee to begin with.

  3. Authors estates are inherently more complex than a similar sized estate from a “normal” person, and need more thought. I have heard of very many cases where the relatives of an author mismanage intellectual property. This can even result in an authors work being kept of print – for example an author called loomis who wrote a seminal series on how to draw whose estate was offered hundreds of thousands of pounds to print it but whose relatives refused to allow it to be published.

    All I am saying is that there should be provisions stating what happens to the intellectual property and probably establishing a trust to manage it according to your wishes.

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