Home /Blogs/Estate Planning for Composers and Songwriters: 10 Things to Do Before You Die
October 18, 2022 | EntertainmentFrom the blog

Estate Planning for Composers and Songwriters: 10 Things to Do Before You Die

post image
Marc D. Ostrow

Of Counsel

Preparing for your eventual demise isn’t fun, but there are far more important things you can do for your musical legacy than writing a requiem.  Proper planning for your death or incapacity is important even if you don’t have a spouse or kids and it involves more than just making a will.

So, here’s a bucket list of ten things composers and other musicians should do before they die.  You don’t have to do everything all at once and some steps are more important than others.  But get started!  Spoiler alert: it all boils down to organizing your musical life, deciding who you want to be in charge of it once you’re gone and then working with professionals to ensure a smooth hand-off.

1. Organize your files. All contracts, royalty statements and other important documents should be kept together and clearly organized. Get a filing cabinet and a bunch of manila folders.  You should know that planning for the legal aspects of your life is a very crucial thing to do.  You can keep digital files of scanned documents as long as the documents and folders are clearly labeled.

Create clearly labeled physical files for:

  • PRO (ASCAP, BMI, SESAC or GMR) membership agreements both as a writer and, if applicable, as a publisher
  • Your publishing company documents (e.g., d/b/a certificate, certificate of incorporation, operating agreement, bylaws)
  • Songwriter, composer or other music publishing agreements for any works represented by other publishers
  • Copyright registration certificates
  • Agreements with collaborators and/or owners of copyrighted text, samples and other third-party works, including royalty splits/payment information
  • Recording contracts, including producer agreements and side artist contracts, if you’re a recording artist or have self-produced any recordings
  • Mechanical licenses from record labels or the Harry Fox Agency (HFA) for any recordings of your works
  • All commissioning agreements, particularly if there are any unexpired exclusivities
  • Film, TV, advertising, videogame, corporate and other scoring agreements
  • Copies of recent royalty statements (e.g., past 3-5 years) from performing rights organizations (PROs), music publishers, record labels, Harry Fox, SoundExchange, the Music Licensing Collective (MLC) and other entities that are supposed to pay you for the use of your music

Organize your digital files, too:

  • Clearly label all your Sibelius, Finale or Dorico files, PDFs of your scores and sheet music, audio and other digital files in specific folders;
  • back them up onto a thumb drive and/or cloud storage; and
  • organize, label and back-up PDFs of physical documents listed above.

2. Create an easily accessible master list for the user name and passwords to:

  • Your computer(s)
  • Your PRO, MLC and SoundExchange account(s)
  • Royalty portals for any music publisher, administrator or record label
  • Your web site and web hosting account(s)
  • Your email and social media account(s)
  • Any online services where you’ve posted your music
  • Any password service you use to manage other passwords

3. Make sure all your works have been registered with your PRO and the MLC. You need to do this regularly in order to get paid public performance royalties and mechanical royalties involved in streaming.  Also, if you are self-published, it’s the easiest way for potential licensees to find your music other than Googling you to find your web site.  And periodically check to make sure works represented by other publishers are properly registered, too.  If you’re a recording artist or have self-produced recordings, you should also sign up with SoundExchange and register your works there as well.

4. Assign the copyrights in your works to your publishing company if it’s a corporate entity. If you don’t have a publishing company or it’s merely a sole proprietorship (e.g., Jane Doe d/b/a Jane Doe Music) this is not an issue – there’s no need to assign something to yourself. However, if your publishing company is some other form of business entity (e.g., S Corp., LLC, LLP) you should do this.  Since PROs only track payees, not owners, merely registering your works in the name of your publishing company with your PRO may not be sufficient when it comes to any sale or transfer of your publishing company.  A one-page assignment of copyright with a schedule of works may be all that’s needed.

5. Register your works with the Copyright Office. While registration is permissive, rather than mandatory, there are many benefits to registration, including proof of authorship, the existence of deposit copies of your work and availability of statutory damages if your work’s infringed. You can do a group registration under certain conditions online at www.copyright.gov.

6. Make a list of works represented by other publishers. It can be a simple Excel spreadsheet with columns for the title of the work, instrumentation, the publisher’s name and contact information.

7. Let someone know where all the above information is kept. Any master list and instructions should be in a separate document kept with your will and other estate planning documents and insurance policies.


While you’re organizing your files and making sure your works registrations are up to date, here are some things to think about regarding estate planning for your music and other creative properties:

8. First, find a local trusts and estates (T&E) attorney. While the Copyright Act is federal law, T&E law is largely governed by state laws, which can vary greatly.  Moreover, you want to meet with a local T&E lawyer about drafting important documents such as your will, living will, health care proxy and any trusts for the benefit of loved ones.  Your T&E attorney will ask you all the right questions about how you want to deal with your estate, including tax issues, and will customize an estate plan for you in accordance with your state’s and applicable federal laws.

9. But, also consider working with an entertainment lawyer, too. While there are T&E lawyers who are well-versed in copyright and the music business, most are not, especially if you live in an area that’s not a big arts hub.  So, it may be helpful to have an entertainment lawyer work with your T&E attorney.  The entertainment lawyer need not be local, but should be someone with copyright and music business expertise, including things that are specific to your genre.  The pitfalls avoided will be well worth the modest additional cost.

An experienced music lawyer can be helpful because this attorney can:

  • Assist your T&E lawyer in ensuring that the applicable provisions in any will, trust or assignment documents are appropriately drafted. This way, copyrights, royalties, scores and other aspects of your creative life will not merely be vaguely lumped together with other personal property or financial assets – especially if you want to divide up ownership of individual works or royalty streams or if you want specific instructions as to the disposition of individual scores, instruments and mementos.
  • Ensure that appropriate documentation is supplied to PROs, publishers, labels, licensing collectives and other entities so that your beneficiaries will have their rights promptly recognized and royalties will continue to be paid, rather than placed on hold.
  • Determine whether royalties are being properly paid and whether certain agreements may be terminated either through contractual provisions or by the termination provisions of the Copyright Act.
  • Perform a valuation for your works or assist an estate appraiser so that any deals your estate makes with respect to the sale or administration of your catalog will be fair for your loved ones.
  • Negotiate an agreement for the sale and/or administration of your music as part of your estate plan that would only take effect upon your death so as to avoid your executor or your loved ones having to deal with arcane areas where they lack expertise. Any agreement would have to address financial terms, such as acquisition fees, advances, royalty splits and other contingencies, such as the ability of an executor to back out of a deal and/or make alternative arrangements if the publisher/administrator ceases to exist or is otherwise unable to comply with the terms of the agreement.

10. Consider having a separate music or arts executor. The person you choose as the executor of your overall estate should be the person you trust the most to deal with your home, your finances, the care of your loved ones and most of your other physical possessions.  However, that person may not be the best one to deal with your music and any other literary or creative properties (e.g., did she really mean to put that C# in the horn part?).  So, just as you may consider consulting an entertainment lawyer as part of your estate planning, you may want to consider naming a friend or colleague who is familiar with your music to serve as a special music or arts executor to deal with your compositions and other creative works.  You should discuss your choice of executor(s) with the individuals you choose and should have back-ups.  Executors can decline to serve – or may even predecease you.


As with other aspects of your estate planning, paying attention to issues relating to your music now, before you either die or are incapacitated, will not only give you peace of mind but will spare your loved ones unnecessary cost and anxiety.  It’s the best way to protect your creative legacy.  Contact a member of our team today.

Contributions to this blog by Danielle Yurkew.

Photo by Rachel Loughman on Unsplash
Share This