Choosing Beneficiaries

Topics covered:


What is a beneficiary?

A beneficiary is usually a person, although it can be an organization, that one designates to receive your artwork and other assets upon death. You can designate more than one beneficiary. Beneficiaries are often an artist’s children, grandchildren, spouse, partner, organizations, or a gallery. It is important to note, however, that simply naming a beneficiary does not require him or her to accept your gift.

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Why is it important to name beneficiaries?

Naming beneficiaries helps you control your legacy. It allows you to decide who will get what. For example, you can choose some of your assets to stay within your circle of family and friends, in addition to other institutions which have agreed to accept your work. It also allows you to provide for your loved ones by dividing your assets according to your wishes.

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Won’t my work go to my spouse/child anyway?

The answer to this question is “not necessarily.” If you pass on without a will, that is called dying intestate. When this happens, your property, including your artwork, will be divided among your immediate family – i.e. spouse, children, grandchildren, etc. If you have a spouse that survives you, he or she will receive the first $50,000 of your estate’s assets. The rest of your assets will be divided between your spouse and other family members according to a pre-set formula over which you have no control.

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How do I decide on beneficiaries?

There is no one deciding factor when choosing your beneficiaries. You can weigh different considerations, such as:

  • In general, who do you want to receive your assets when you are gone?
  • Do you want to keep particular assets within your circle of friends or family?
  • Will the beneficiary receiving the work care for it properly?
  • Where would you like your work to ultimately be? Hanging in a relative’s or friend’s house? Sold to provide income to family members or friends?
  • What are the income and estate tax ramifications of choosing one beneficiary over another? (For more information about this, please visit our Valuation and Tax page).

For example, there may be pieces of your artwork that you want to give to specific people in your life, perhaps a spouse or a child. These pieces may have sentimental value to you and to the recipient. You can assign specific works to specific people to ensure that they receive these works and are able to hold and cherish them after you are gone.

You may decide that you want certain pieces of your artwork to be displayed to the public. Thus, you may want to give art to people or organizations with which you have a prior relationship to be displayed. One way to do this would be to name such organizations that have agreed to display your art as a beneficiary of your estate.

You may decide that you want some works sold and for the proceeds of the sales to go to your beneficiaries. If you decide to go down this path, you have full power over which pieces are sold and which beneficiaries receive money. It is important to remember that the prices of your work may change over time. It may be prudent to account for changes in circumstances, such as the price of your art significantly increasing or decreasing when determining how much each beneficiary should receive, as well as the possibility that your work may NOT sell.

If your work does not generate income, but you would like it to remain in the public eye, it may be best to plan to distribute it to family, friends, organizations, or institutions while you are alive.

Some organizations and institutions that may be interested in accepting art are local art centers, cultural centers, historical societies, libraries, public schools, hospitals, and homes for the elderly. Make sure to contact recipients in advance to make sure your gift is welcome.

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What can I do for my beneficiaries?

In naming beneficiaries, you are basically creating a plan of distribution to make sure each beneficiary gets what you want him or her to have. In this process you should not only consider who to name as beneficiaries of your estate, but also what you would like them to receive by way of your artwork and other assets. Just because someone is a beneficiary does not mean that they decide what parts of your estate they are entitled to. It’s also important to note that your actual artwork and the contents of your studio are two different things when assigning items to beneficiaries (more info. on this is provided on the Inventory page). It’s helpful to be as specific as possible when you are assigning items to beneficiaries.

You should discuss your estate plans with your beneficiaries. Make sure they understand your wishes before you name them in your will. Make sure you understand their concerns as well, particularly when it comes to accepting assets that have to be cared for in particular ways. For example, some beneficiaries may want the responsibility of placing your artwork according to your wishes. Others may not. Some organization-beneficiaries may accept your gift without a previously negotiated deal. Others may not. Communicating your thoughts and wishes to your potential beneficiaries before you pass will help you choose the right individuals and organizations to fulfill your wishes. It will also help those chosen beneficiaries understand your wishes more fully.

You can also name advisors to help your beneficiaries understand what is best to do with the art. Advisors can be professionals, or can be fellow artists whom you trust to give good guidance to your beneficiary. Note that, while advisors can provide guidance, only the executor(s) of your will have the ultimate authority to carry out your wishes as expressed in your will.

Finally, once you’ve determined who you would like to receive what, you should take into consideration logistical costs and measures. These may include things such as storage, shipping, documentation and insurance. All of these considerations may not apply to your work or personal situation (e.g., if someone can pick up a piece of artwork, shipping costs may not be incurred). Documentation of artwork is often not undertaken by a beneficiary, so it is best to do this throughout your lifetime. If your work will need to be stored while your estate plan is carried out or will is fulfilled, or you wish it to be stored somewhere after your lifetime, you should set aside money for your executor to store your work for a reasonable period of time.

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What are the legal rights and obligations of my beneficiaries?

A beneficiary does not have any obligation to accept any part of your estate. Thus, while you may want to name specific primary beneficiaries for your works, it is prudent to also name successor beneficiaries or allow your executor to choose successor beneficiaries in the event that the primary beneficiary doesn’t accept the gift.

Your beneficiary should not be a witness to the signing of your will. Doing so will disqualify that beneficiary from receiving any part of your estate. For more information about this, please read “What do I need to do to make my will legally binding?” in our Making a Will section.

Once a beneficiary decides to accept work from you, there may be significant tax consequences to the beneficiary depending on how the work was transferred. Please refer to our Valuation and Tax section for more information on this important aspect of legacy planning.

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