This Blog was written by: Natalie Bender
For many of us, Harper Lee’s acclaimed novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” was a staple on our high school reading list (and was likely one we re-visited in university). The novel is a Pulitzer Prize winner, and has become a classic in American literature. It has sold more than 40 million copies since it was published in 1960.
There has always been an element of mystery shrouding the author, Harper Lee. Despite the popularity of her first novel, she always dismissed the idea of publishing a second book. Then, seemingly out of the blue, her supposed sequel, “Go Set a Watchman” was published in 2015. Lee was 88 years old at the time. It ended up being the best-selling book of 2015. However, the circumstances of that publication are unusual. It’s understood that her lawyer, Tonja Carter, located the manuscript in Lee’s safe deposit box, where it had been affixed to an original typescript of “To Kill a Mockingbird”, and arranged to have it published. It’s unclear whether Lee participated in, and approved, its release. This raised concerns, and the state of Alabama went so far as to investigate the possibility of elder abuse and financial abuse. The allegations were ruled to have been unfounded; however, many readers have petitioned against the purchase of the book, based on a belief that Lee never intended for the piece to be published and that reading it essentially contributes to tainting her legacy. This is especially considering the shocking and upsetting evolution of protagonist Atticus Finch in “Go Set a Watchman”.
The mystery around Harper Lee has only intensified since her death in 2016. Lee signed her Last Will just eight days before her death. The infamous Tonja Carter was named as her personal representative. Carter went to Court in 2016 to fight to have Lee’s Will sealed. Her reasoning was that Lee desired privacy, and that the Will being made public could result in the “potential harassment” of the people who are named in it. The family supported this claim. In a surprising turn of events, the New York Times subsequently filed a lawsuit petitioning for the document to be unsealed and be made a matter of public record. The NYT claimed that the “lack of transparency will likely fuel skepticism among those who feel that Carter wielded too much power over Lee’s career and legacy”. On February 26, 2018, the Alabama Court ordered for Lee’s Will to be unsealed.
So who stands to benefit under the Will? Lee never married, and had no children. Her closest family member was her older sister, who passed away in 2014. Now that her Will has been made public, it has been determined that she directed that the bulk of her assets, including her literary properties, be transferred into a trust, appropriately called the Mockingbird Trust. Tonja Carter is one of two named trustees of that trust. The beneficiaries are Lee’s niece and three nephews. Not much beyond the basic facts is known, as the trust documents have remained private. What we can assume is that Lee’s estate will likely be sizable, considering that the royalties she has been receiving from “To Kill a Mockingbird” amount to approximately $3 million annually.
Carter has apparently been provided “wide-ranging powers” over Lee’s writings as part of her responsibilities as personal representative. It is a possibility that Lee wrote a third manuscript during her lifetime, which Carter previously alluded to in an interview. Only time will tell if such a manuscript actually exists, and if, now that Lee is deceased, Carter chooses to release this document and has the latitude to do so. If she does, this will certainly be met with skepticism and potentially more litigation.
The circumstances around Harper Lee’s affairs are a useful reminder about the importance of carefully selecting a Power of Attorney and personal representative. Whether you’re a famous author or the average person, it’s important to ensure that there is no possibility for the individual to whom you are giving this responsibility to unfairly benefit from or abuse their position of power. Harper Lee could have benefited from the involvement of a neutral third-party, such as a Trust Company, as both her Power of Attorney and personal representative/Executor. A Trust Company is especially a wise choice when there are complex assets or privacy concerns involved, both of which were central issues in this case.