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Monday, March 26, 2018

Harper Lee’s Will Keeps Her Affairs Private

The odds are good that you have read the book or saw the movie adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird. Harper Lee’s coming-of-age classic has a perennial spot on summer reading lists, and in the hearts of many attorneys who view Atticus Finch as a fictional role model.

When a follow-up, Go Set a Watchman was published in 2015 after 55 years with no new writings from Lee, fans rejoiced. But the novel proved more controversial than satisfying. Perhaps most upsetting at first blush is the revelation that Atticus is a racist. Those of us in the legal field that admired him were crushed. Second, and more importantly from a real-world perspective, is the fact that it was never made 100% clear that Lee intended the book be published.  

Although Watchman is a sequel time-wise, it was actually the first book Lee submitted to publishers, leading many to question whether she viewed it as a stand-alone novel worthy of publication, or a rough draft.

Lee released a statement through her attorney saying, “In the mid-1950s, I completed a novel called Go Set a Watchman. It features the character known as Scout as an adult woman and I thought it a pretty decent effort. My editor, who was taken by the flashbacks to Scout's childhood, persuaded me to write a novel from the point of view of the young Scout. I was a first-time writer, so I did as I was told. I hadn't realized it had survived, so was surprised and delighted when my dear friend and lawyer Tonja Carter discovered it. After much thought and hesitation, I shared it with a handful of people I trust and was pleased to hear that they considered it worthy of publication. I am humbled and amazed that this will now be published after all these years.”

The fact that this statement was released by the attorney who also “discovered” the book and authorized its publication did little to ease the suspicion that Lee was not fully in charge of her own affairs. Sadly, Lee passed away in 2016.

In part because of the controversy over Watchman, The New York Times sued to have Lee’s will released to the public. They argued that wills are typically public records, and Lee’s estate ultimately relented and released the document. But like any good will, it revealed very little. Lee, who was known for her desire to lead a private life, hired estate planning attorneys who set up trusts that will carry out the bulk of her end of life wishes in secret.

What Lee’s will reveals is not the answer to burning questions we have about what becomes of Scout, Atticus, and the rest of the Mockingbird crew, but a reminder that of two fundamental estate planning concepts. First, your estate plan should rely on trusts if you want to keep the bulk of your end of life decisions out of public view. Second, even well-thought-out plans are subject to suspicion or challenge, so careful execution is key.

To ensure that your estate is planned correctly, contact the experienced estate planning attorneys at Monk Legal.


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