Written by: Natalie Bender
A couple of weeks ago, I posted a blog about Harper Lee’s estate. You may recall that the author of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ passed away in 2016, and that the New York Times recently filed a motion to remove the Sealing Order on Probate as a matter of public interest.
Harper Lee’s estate has made the news again. A Broadway play based on her famous novel is scheduled to premiere this coming November. However, her estate has filed a lawsuit against the producers of the play on the basis that it deviates too much from the original novel, particularly in the way it alters the perception of the protagonist Atticus Finch, as well as the way it depicts Alabama in the 1930s.
This is just one example of how the work of an executor of an estate can potentially go on for many years. In my career, I have seen a number of examples when we have had to re-open estates years after they were closed due to such reasons as:
- finding stocks that don’t pay dividends (ie no tax reporting from the issuer) or foreign bank accounts
- being notified about a vested interest in another estate
- discovering an interest in a partnership or land syndicate
- being asked for permission to transfer a cemetery plot
The work of an executor can also be exponentially more complex than originally anticipated, and can demand more of an executor than the typical set of duties. As Ms. Lee had a contract in place with the producers of the play (which, interestingly, was signed 8 months before she died at age 89), her executor Tonja Carter sees it as being part of her responsibilities as executor to ensure that the contract is upheld. She has reviewed the play script in depth, engaged in discussions with the producers, and ultimately filed a lawsuit which argues that the terms of the contract have been violated. What is being sought as part of the lawsuit is for the estate (presumably Ms. Carter on behalf of the estate) to get the final say on how the script should be changed in order to uphold the spirit of the original piece of work.
In my previous blog, I talked about how instrumental Tonja Carter had been in the controversial publishing of Harper Lee’s second novel ‘Go Set a Watchman’, which painted many of the ‘Mockingbird’ characters very differently from the original novel. As such, it’s surprising to many that she is taking such an aggressive stance on a play for those same reasons.
One of the producers of the play has commented about the “unfortunate history of litigious behavior” of the estate, being the “subject of considerable controversy based on the perceptions surrounding its handling of the work of Harper Lee both before and after her death”. The producers have made it clear that they don’t believe the lawsuit has any merit, and that the suit will be “vigorously defended”.
This is certainly not the last we will hear on this matter, as the terms of Harper Lee’s legacy continue to be in debate.