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Dispute over author’s work lingers decades after his death

Few in Cranberry Township may realize the enormity of the request they are making when they ask someone to serve as the personal representative or executor of their estates. In many cases, such a responsibility may only be temporary, with one only having to manage the proper dispersal of a decedent’s assets. Yet in others, one may be left to deal with intellectual or artistic works whose authorized use must be monitored for years (or even decades). In such cases, the duties assigned to an executor might even outlast their lifetime, requiring future generations to assume the task of protecting one’s creative properties. 

Take the case of John Steinbeck. The renowned author died in 1968. Yet recently, some of his beneficiaries have taken to court to argue over the future use of his works. This most recent action was initiated by the estate of the late author’s son (who himself passed away in 2016). Estate representatives are appealing a ruling made in a lawsuit filed by Steinbeck’s stepdaughter, who claimed that his son and the son’s wife had impeded projects to turn the author’s works into films in recent years. At issue is an agreement made in 1983 between the stepdaughter’s mother and Steinbeck’s two sons, which the late son’s representatives say was in violation of a law that allows artists or their immediate family members to terminate copyright deals. 

As this case demonstrates, some estate cases may never truly end. Thus, during the estate planning process, one should think very carefully about whom they designate appointments to as well as how powers of appointments will be passed on if the potential of needing future estate representation exists. An experienced attorney might be a good resource to have access to during such a process. 

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