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Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Privacy Preserved

Questions About Harper Lee’s Life Go Unanswered Thanks To Astute Estate Planning

Eight days before her death, Harper Lee, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird, created a new will. Now, two years later, it has been released to the public, but it reveals very little about the author’s last wishes. And that is probably not an accident.

Lee, who was known for her desire to live a private life, made headlines in the year preceding her death by agreeing to publish what was billed as a sequel to her coming-of-age classic. Go Set a Watchman sparked more pre-orders than any book since the last Harry Potter novel, and raised a lot of eyebrows.

Lee’s long-time attorney, Tonja B. Carter, had reportedly discovered the manuscript in a safe deposit box in 2014 and secured Lee’s blessing to have it published. Others pointed out that Carter was present when the manuscript was appraised in 2011. Something just seemed off.  

Plus Lee had previously vowed she would never write another novel. Now, 55 years had passed and she was suddenly ready to take us back to Maycomb, Alabama? What had changed?

Well, a lot. Lee suffered a stroke in 2007, and had severe vision and hearing problems. Her older sister Alice, who she had lived with in a modest brick home in Monroeville, Alabama, passed away in 2014. Lee moved into an assisted living facility.

People wanted to know if Lee really intended for the book to be published, especially after readers discovered that the beloved Atticus Finch, hero of Mockingbird, was now a bigot and segregationist. Did she really want us to read Watchman? Or was she being manipulated by others who hoped to profit off her work?

An investigation by a state agency looking for signs of elder abuse and financial fraud determined no such abuse had occurred.

Sadly, Lee passed away in 2016, with speculation about her wellbeing and intentions still swirling. The fact that Carter was named Lee’s estate administer, and requested that Lee’s will be sealed did little to quell the rumors that Lee had somehow been taken advantage of in her final years.

The New York Times sued the estate for access to the will, arguing that wills are public court documents. Carter recently relented, and the court granted access to the document, but it answered few questions.

As we would recommend to anyone who values privacy or has considerable wealth, the will reveals very little about its creators final wishes. Instead of spelling out her desires for the entire world to see, it transfers her assets to a trust which she created in 2011.

Trusts are private entities not subject to public scrutiny. The give their creators privacy, and in some ways allow for the control of assets after death. For example, Lee could have specified in her trust documents that she wanted no works published ever, or for 50 years, or that a bunch of secret novels be released immediately, or that her trustees do what they saw fit with her works. We don’t know what her trust actually says, and we probably never will.

But that is the point. Anyone who values privacy like Harper Lee did should consider including a trust or trusts in their estate plan.

Contact Keating Law today to inquire about planning your estate.

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