What Happens to Patents When You Die?

Rich Goldstein

Founder & Principal Patent Attorney
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Have you ever wondered what happens to patents when you die? What will happen to your intellectual property once you’re no longer alive? It’s an important question to consider, as your creative work and ideas hold great value, and should be protected even after you pass away.

Intellectual property rights have become an increasingly valuable and complex part of one’s estate. This article delves into the intriguing world of patents and explores what happens to these unique assets when their creators pass away. Understanding the fate of patents after death is crucial for inventors, their heirs, and the protection of their groundbreaking ideas.

What Happens to Patents When You Die?

When you die, your patents do not automatically vanish; they become part of your estate. The fate of your patents depends on factors such as your will, applicable laws, and your intentions. Patents can be inherited, assigned, licensed, or sold, ensuring your intellectual property’s continued protection and commercialization.

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If you want your family to still benefit from your patents, they must be transferred to the right beneficiaries when you pass away. There are ways to write the deceased inventor’s estate in a way that works in their best interest, ensuring your patent is protected.

As your dedicated legal partner, an attorney from Goldstein Patent Law can help protect your best interest, ensuring your patent will transfer to the right heirs and according to your wishes after you pass away. The average person isn’t expected to understand property law–so it’s best to work with an attorney from the beginning.

What Is Intellectual Property?

A patent is a form of intellectual property. Intellectual property refers to your ownership rights over your unique creations and works as the inventor and patent owner. Intellectual property encompasses a range of rights, including copyrights, patents, trademarks, and designs.

Unlike physical possessions, intellectual property is intangible and cannot be physically touched. If you hold a patent, your intellectual property rights grant you exclusive control and use of your creations, allowing you to do what you want with them while excluding others from doing the same. Multiple individuals can own intellectual property rights for a single creation.

It’s important to note that intellectual property is separate from the physical manifestations of your work, meaning selling or giving away a physical object doesn’t necessarily transfer your intellectual property rights associated with it to another person.

Can Intellectual Property Be Considered Inheritance?

Yes, when an inventor dies, their intellectual property can transfer to another person or be inherited by their loved ones. For example, if you invented a toy, you can write in your estate that your spouse or eldest child can inherit the patent.

This is why it’s essential to consider your intellectual property when creating your comprehensive estate plan. You need to recognize the financial value of your intellectual property to avoid complications. If a deceased inventor fails to make proper arrangements for this intellectual property, it could end up in the wrong hands.

Depending on the intellectual property’s worth, your estate may have to pay more inheritance tax than anticipated. This can disrupt even the most carefully crafted estate plans, potentially affecting your ability to fulfill specific gift intentions. Determining the value of intellectual property for inheritance tax purposes can be complex, requiring the expertise of specialized accountants in some instances.

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How Can You Structure Estate for Patents and Property?

The structure of the deceased inventor’s estate is an essential factor here. When an inventor passes away, they can structure their estate in three ways to handle their patents, applications, and other intellectual property.

Transferring Patents and Property

One way is through a will that transfers their patents and property to a trust. The trust, created by a trust document and overseen by a trustee, becomes the patent’s new owner.

According to state law, to make this official, the attorney who created the trust must provide a letter stating the inventor’s death, the existence of the trust, and the patient’s transfer to the trust.

This letter, along with the trust document and death certificate, is then sent to a patent attorney who files three essential documents:

  • an assignment informing the USPTO (United States Patent and Trademark Office) about the trust’s ownership of the patent
  • a document noting the assignment in the patent file
  • a power of attorney granting the patent attorney the authority to represent the trust in patent-related matters

Using a Will

If you have patents and want to plan for what happens to them after you pass away, there’s another option you can consider. It involves using a legal document called a will. In a will, you can name someone called an executor who will carry out your instructions. The executor has various tasks to complete, including distributing your property as stated in the will.

In most cases I’ve seen, the executor is also the person who receives the patent. However, the executor and the patent beneficiary can be different individuals. In that case, the executor must provide a letter stating that the beneficiary should receive the patent.

The patent attorney then follows a similar process as with a trust. Only they receive the will and death certificate instead of a trust document. They make the necessary changes to show the patent’s new owner, whether an individual or a trust.

Managing Patents Without a Will

When a deceased inventor does not leave a will, it creates a challenging situation for managing their patents or patented inventions. In this last option, the absence of a will complicates matters. However, there is a way to handle such cases by going through a legal process in court with the necessary documentation.

To address the situation, a spouse or close family member must present the death certificate and request “letters of administration” from the court. These documents grant the individual the authority to manage the affairs of the deceased inventor and take necessary actions regarding the patents.

Once the letters of administration are granted, the appointed administrator can temporarily file an assignment to possess the patents. After the estate is settled and the patents are either transferred or sold, the new owner must officially file another assignment to become the legal owner. While this approach involves legal complexities, it provides a way to handle patents when there is no will in place.

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How Can Goldstein Patent Law Assist You?

Goldstein Patent Law offers comprehensive assistance throughout the patent application process and communication with the patent office. Our experienced legal experts handle the complexities of securing maximum protection for your intellectual property, relieving you of all the leg work. Working with a licensed attorney is crucial due to the challenging nature of patent applications and the intricacies of patent law.

If you’re an inventor or patent owner seeking to safeguard your patented invention, Goldstein Patent Law supports you. We understand that patents can be difficult to comprehend, and our team is dedicated to providing guidance. We will communicate with the patent office on your behalf, ensuring you are updated on the status of your patent application, which typically involves substantial processing times.

Related Questions

How Long Does a Patent Last After Death?

A patent’s duration remains unchanged after death and continues for the remaining term, typically 20 years from the filing date. The expiration of a patent is not accelerated by the inventor’s death, ensuring that the patent retains its entire duration as determined by its filing date.

Even after the inventor dies, the patent provides exclusive rights and protection for the designated period, allowing the inventor’s estate or assigned parties to benefit from its commercial potential.

Who Owns a Patent When the Owner Dies?

When the owner of a patent dies, the ownership of the patent depends on estate planning or applicable laws. The inventor’s estate plan or legal rules of succession determine who will own the patent after death, whether heirs, beneficiaries, assigned individuals, or entities.

Do Patents Ever Expire?

Yes, patents do expire. Patents have a limited duration, usually 20 years from the filing date. Once the expiration period is reached, the patent protection ceases, allowing the invention to enter the public domain, unless extensions or adjustments are granted under specific circumstances.

Conclusion

For patent owners interested in including their patents in their estate planning or trust, we recommend consulting an attorney from Goldstein Patent Law. We aim to identify every opportunity to protect your patent and benefit you and your family. Every inventor deserves to have their questions addressed and an attorney who will advocate for their interests. Contact us to learn more about how we can assist you.

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