I don't know who said it first. It probably goes back way further than any of us would imagine. But in any case, the old adage which says nothing is inevitable but death and taxes, I have it on good authority, also applies to artists. Inevitable or not, we spend thousands of dollars every year trying to avoid both. Of course, the best we can ever do is reduce their impact somewhat. With every receipt we save, every painting we donate to charity, every square foot of our studios we write off as a business expense, we spend hundreds of dollars and enormous amounts of time, ingenuity, and effort in avoiding taxes. The same goes for the thousands of dollars we spend each year for health care costs and insurance in trying to avoid death. And of course the two are intertwined. I'm not sure if avoiding taxes ever lead to anyone's death, but I do know that death in no way leads to avoiding taxes.
The strange thing is, as artists, never a day goes by we don't think and prepare for the taxes part. But when it comes the death part...we not only aren't prepared, we don't even want to THINK about it. Those artists under thirty, in all likelihood, don't even have a WILL; and lest those over fifty get too smug about the fact that they DO have one, it's probably so outdated, more than one of the beneficiaries THEMSELVES may be dead. But this is not about making out your will or even updating them. Unless you're far more anal retentive than most artists, chances are you aren't likely to list any individual paintings in your will. Yet, at any given moment, many of us have dozens, maybe hundreds of them lying around the studio which someone would have to dispose of in the event of our death.
At one time or another, we have all harbored vainglorious thoughts of bequeathing all our unsold work at the time of our death to some museum for the future enlightenment of the human race. Or if we're particularly perverse, we've pictured our heirs squabbling amongst themselves over our priceless masterpieces. Or we've envisioned Sotheby's auctioning off the remnants of our artistic estate for megabucks sufficient to fund federal, state, and local governments for months, even years, further underline the fact that death and taxes are well nigh inseparable. Silly as all these scenarios are, the fact is, ANY of them are probably preferable to the situation in which we've done NOTHING ourselves to handle the disposition of our work after death.
So, in the interest of avoiding taxes, if not death, here are some suggestions. First, don't leave them to your next of kin. Unless they art marketing experts, they will either overvalue them (confusing sentiment with value), undervalue them (much more rare), stow them away in attics for generations, demand too high a percentage if sold by a dealer, or be swindled by an unscrupulous dealer, agent, or collector. A much better course would be to name in your will a trusted dealer, gallery, or museum to handle all your remaining work in the event of your death. If a museum has expressed interest in any of your work, then fine, there are certain tax advantages to bequeathing one or more pieces selected by the museum before or after your death. But if not, leaving the whole lot to such an institution will only guarantee more attic storage or a white elephant sale of your work sometime in the future.
Second, in setting up an arrangement like this with a dealer, gallery, or museum, specify the numbers in advance--wholesale prices, retail prices, percentages, whatever you like--but get it in writing. YOU know the market for your work. So do THEY. Your heirs probably won't. Third, make sure you provide some type of documentation for each work, something signed by you, attached to the work itself (as well as on file), in which you specify the media used, date completed, personal comments on the work, any appraisals, awards received, copyright papers, archival information, perhaps even an envelope with preliminary photos or sketches used to create the work. In addition to making life easier for your executor and estate tax lawyer, preparations such as these will almost certainly result in a greater financial benefit for your heirs. Beyond that, the professional handling of your artistic legacy will further enhance the value of your art to collectors, quite apart from the fact that you are also dead.