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Late author's fictional character is a disputed asset in estate

The British may have James Bond, but the Americans have long had Jack Ryan, the fictional spy created by the late author Tom Clancy. Instead of fictional international intrigue, however, the spy is now embroiled in a complicate piece of estate litigation.

While Clancy died in 2013, the character of Jack Ryan lived on through books that were written by others in Clancy's style. In addition, the fictional Jack Ryan has spawned a small franchise of other books, all of which feature his fictional son or fictional nephew. The only thing that's very real in all this is the lawsuit that's been filed by the author's widow and the millions of dollars at stake in the outcome.

The author's widow is suing the estate's representative for violating his fiduciary duty by giving two "Jack Ryan" business entities with similar-sounding names an interest in the posthumously written novels about Jack Ryan and his progeny.

The business entities had been created by the author to protect and hold the copyrights for his novels back when he was married to his first wife. When they divorced, he created a new business entity to hold the copyrights on subsequent books -- presumably because it created a "bright line" between profits his first wife had some entitlement to as part of their marital estate and those to which she had no right.

The author further clarified his intentions by naming only his widow (and second wife) and children as his heirs. By investing the posthumous books with the first two Jack Ryan business entities, the estate's representative definitely muddied the waters.

The widow would like to see things cleared up. In addition to asking the court to declare the character of "Jack Ryan" and all his fictional offspring exclusively part of the Clancy estate, she wants the personal representative replaced. She's asked for a declaratory judgment, which would clarify everyone's rights without having to go into a full-scale lawsuit.

Cases like these illustrate exactly how easily even the clearest of intentions can be thwarted if the estate's representative isn't vigilant. They're also a fascinating example of how something -- or someone -- that isn't even real can become legal property due to the value of intellectual rights.

If you have a complex estate issue, talk to an attorney who handles probate litigation today.

Source: The Baltimore Sun, "Lawsuit filed to determine who owns the rights to the late novelist Tom Clancy's most famous character," Mary Carole McCauley, Aug. 29, 2017

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