We all like to dream of finding a buried treasure, either a trunk buried in the beach left behind by pirates or a stash of gold coins buried in the backyard, like the Saddle Ridge Hoard. The hoard is 1,427 gold coins found in Sierra Nevada, California in 2013 worth an estimated $10 million dollars. Ahh, the stuff dreams are made of.

But the truth is many photographers today, without realizing it, are sitting on a treasure that can be worth 6 to 7 figures (not counting the decimal places). Real money. Some of you are thinking, that’s not me; I shoot “regular stuff” or weddings, or senior portraits, not the fancy schmancy, big bucks advertising photos. But dear reader, those simple images can be worth far more, with time.

Some of your photo treasure may not be worth it’s full potential until years later, many years after your passing. Like fine wines, some images become more valuable when they age. A quick example is an ordinary wedding at the time and the flower girl grows up to be a big deal in Hollywood (actually a true story for one of Ed’s client’s). Or a wedding guest turns out to be connected to an unsavory collection of “entrepreneurs” (also true), or that clean-cut senior becomes the biggest con man in history. And so on. This is our often repeated principle of “Ya never know”.

Not to be morbid, but death is sometimes a financial windfall to your heirs (talk to Michael Jackson’s kids), if there is some foresight. We’d advise all photographers, but especially those of a certain age to read this entire piece slowly and completely. And like shampoo, repeat.

Recently, many people were simply incredulous that a 57 year old man with an estate already worth over 300 million dollars, and will produce far more in the future, would die without having had an estate plan or even leaving a simple will. Other than estate lawyers, very few people ever want to discuss estate planning or wills because – drum roll please – the topics revolve around death.  Not a great topic on a first date unless you are having it with Debbie Downer.

There are about a dozen people (and likely five times that number of lawyers) all attempting to feed at the Prince money fountain.  Prince did not leave a will.  The whys and why nots are irrelevant now. The legal war has just begun. Many lawyers will be shopping for expensive toys to buy with the fees they will make in the coming months and years. Your estate need not be worth 300 million dollars for your family to engage in a similar battle with far less money at stake.

Photographers, artists and illustrators, who think they will live forever through their works, forget the other part, which is that their bodies won’t. As a result they are generally more likely to avoid having their estates planned or even having a will. They tend to believe the myth that unless you have a lot of money you don’t need either an estate plan or even a will. The notion is simply dead wrong (as usual, pun intended).

For numerous reasons, people who own businesses, have children, own property etc., are far more likely to have their ducks in a row via a will or estate plan well before the Grim Reaper shows up. It is altogether typical and usual that a will provides for a person or persons to sell off property or run a business until it is sold after the owner’s death.  That person(s) is in most states termed an “executor” or “executrix” (gender specific terms) and is charged with the responsibility of carrying out all of the wishes of the deceased.

The executor/executrix should be selected by the testator – legalese for the person having the will done for them. The selection should be based on the knowledge, wisdom, sophistication and honesty of the proposed executor.

In a simple scenario, if the will says “I leave my 1964 Classic Red Mustang convertible to my best friend Ronnie Smith who lives at 123 Main St., Smithtown, NY” then it is part of the executor’s job to get that car to Ronnie. It is altogether common that one executor is appointed to take care of all remaining business, personal property, real property and so on.

While that system works just fine for most people, but when it comes to photographers, illustrators and creatives not so much. Those who have had the foresight to have a will done for them often select an executor who while otherwise trustworthy, sophisticated and intelligent knows nothing about the photography industry or art world.

One need not be a Warhol, Avedon, Presley or Prince for his/her works to throw off income to the deceased’s spouse, children, friends or charities for years to come. A well meaning executor who is unsophisticated in the photo industry might in good faith decide to place the fine art works of the deceased with a big name stock photography company thinking that by so doing the estate can sit back, not worry about archiving images and simply receive monthly checks.

Such errors in judgment can cost the survivors/beneficiaries lots of money over many years.  Ed has also seen valuable archives go to universities or museums where they are neither marketed nor even exhibited. In other cases that Jack and Ed know of, the surviving spouse or child was left with complete control of the photographer’s archives and decided to become knowledgeable and involved in the photo business. To their great financial benefit and to the enhanced memory of their departed loved ones. The other alternative would have left valuable images generating lots of publicity for a stock agency and cab fare for the surviving heirs.

We strongly urge that when planning your estate you make sure that your chosen executor/executrix either knows how to market your works or knows who to seek out for guidance in maximizing future licensing or sales.

It is typical that a will for a photographer or illustrator will have legal language substantially saying the following:

Where Sarah is doctor or CPA:

“I name my wife Sarah as my executrix and instruct her to consult with my Photo Agent Sid Brooks and defer to his opinion before placing any of my images with any gallery, stock agency, agent or archives”

Where Sarah is the wife and photo agent of the deceased:

“I name my wife Sarah as my executrix and she shall have sole discretion to (do whatever she thinks best) with anything and everything including all of my works”

Where the deceased is a photojournalist and leaves nothing to any person but wants a college to reap all benefits:

“I direct my executor to donate all of my work to XYZ University outright for it to do with it as the University deems fit”.


The scenarios are endless but the key points are these:

  1. If you don’t leave a will each state has it own rules as to how what you leave is disbursed.  The estate will likely pay more taxes than it should and will almost definitely run up otherwise avoidable legal fees. You give up control to that which you painstakingly created.
  1. Name a person who knows the business you are in as either executor or as someone to work with the executor, to maximize in death the income your work will generate in the future;
  1. Plan out now with the assistance of an experienced estate attorney the best ways to minimize taxes and treat your copyrights and works so they can generate money to your loved ones after you have shot your last photo.
  1. Do what you can legally do to keep you assets and income away from the tax man.
  1. Planning your estate and doing a will now will likely prevent a war by and between family and wanna’ be family who will be fighting over your works after you are gone.  Viewed another way – doing a will now will screw several lawyers from charging big fees to represent your relatives later on. an honest lawyer will tell you “Doing a will is cheap, fighting when there is no will is expensive”.
  1.  Do not do this yourself – ever, never, no matter what  Do not get a form from Legal Zoom or some other type “service”.  Use an experienced estate lawyer and make sure he/she knows the nature and revenues produced by your works so that they may be treated appropriately.
  1. Ya’ never know what your images will earn after you are gone. You must assume that your works have value and they should be treated as a potential source of income for those you leave behind.
  1. Provide for the physical/digital safe storage of all images analog, print and digital as well as the model releases and invoices from prior uses.  Consider the likelihood that unless you have a business partner or a family member already involved in your business, the average intelligent, sophisticated CPA, doctor, lawyer or real estate broker who may be your executor knows zero about the photo business.

If you plan well instead of ignoring humanity’s one inevitable and common experience, glasses of fine beverages will be hoisted to your good memory and you can look down (or maybe up) with a smile.