Tuesday, March 6, 2018
Harper Lee, author of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” left behind a trail of unanswered questions when she died in her sleep two years ago at age 89. One lingering query was why the renowned author had decided to publish another book 55 years after her masterpiece was released following a seemingly dry interim. Are there, perhaps, other unknown works that remain unpublished? And if so, who has the rights to these potential literary giants? The answers to these questions may go unanswered for some time.
Lee was an incredibly private person and disfavored the spectacle of the press. The will she signed on February 11, 2016, just eight days before her death, was successfully sealed after Lee’s attorney convinced a probate judge that making the will public might lead to the harassment of the beneficiaries. The New York Times, unconcerned with Lee’s desire for privacy, filed suit to have the will made publicly available. Archie Reeves, The New York Times’s lawyer, commented: “It’s a public record, and the press and the public have a right to public records.” Fortunately for Lee and her family, the will is absent much detail as it leaves a majority of her assets to a trust: “It is not an uncommon will, and it is typically what we term a pour-over will where anything in the estate goes over to the trust and they don’t have to disclose the terms of the trust,” said Sidney C. Summey, a trusts and estates lawyer in Birmingham.
See Serge F. Kovaleski & Alexandra Alter, Harper Lee’s Will, Unsealed, Only Adds More Mystery To Her Life, The New York Times, February 27, 2018.
Special thanks to Felix B. Chang, Associate Professor at the University of Cincinnati College of Law.
Special thanks to Joel C. Dobris (Professor of Law, UC Davis School of Law) for bringing this article to my attention.