HARPER LEE’S WILL UNSEALED: A LESSON IN ESTATE PRIVACY
Harper Lee, author of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” was famously private and careful about how her novel was utilized in public space. When she died in 2016, her long-time attorney moved to have her will sealed. Despite common Alabama probate court practice to record wills in the public record, the attorney argued that Ms. Lee’s heirs had an interest in keeping her estate private. The New York Times and its attorneys argued that Ms. Lee and her family deserved no greater privacy protections than anyone else in Alabama. This led to a legal court dispute that finally ended this week, when Ms. Lee’s estate withdrew its opposition and agreed to unseal the will.
The much-anticipated document, however, did not reveal much once unsealed. The document was signed only eight days before Ms. Lee’s death, but it is not clear in what ways this will differed from any previous versions. In the final version, the majority of Ms. Lee’s assets, including literary works, pass to a trust that the author set up in 2011. Because trust documents may remain private, the will does not reveal the specifics about Ms. Lee’s presumably sizeable estate and how it will be distributed.
A trust can be created to hold assets and distribute them to beneficiaries in accordance with the trust’s instructions. Because trust documents may remain confidential, it is possible to use a trust to privately transfer financial, real, and intellectual property. Under state laws, any assets that are not distributed by beneficiary designation, joint ownership with a right of survivorship, or a trust will transfer through the court probate process. And, as demonstrated by the Lee Estate’s recent legal battle, the probate proceeding is available to the public.
Trusts are also useful tools to ensure that assets are managed in accordance with the grantor’s values. For years, Ms. Lee would not allow “To Kill a Mockingbird” to be commercialized, and she kept her intellectual property well protected. However, in the months since her death, there has been a Broadway play produced, a graphic novel set for publication, and plans to create local tourist attractions in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama. It is not clear how Ms. Lee would have responded to these developments. However, the trustee that manages these literary works is bound to act in accordance with the instructions of the trust.
The fact that the press, with no lack of trying, has been unable to unearth the details of Ms. Lee’s bequests is a testament to the power of a trust. A trust is an estate tool that can protect privacy and preserve a legacy for generations. If you are concerned about your privacy and the privacy of your loved ones after you pass, you may consider contacting an estate planning attorney to set up a trust of your own. Trusts can also be set up to preserve your legacy in accordance with your values for generations to come.
Ask A St. Petersburg Estate Planning Attorney For Assistance
How best to avoid the public nature of probate? Meet with a probate and estate planning attorney. Estate planning does not have to be complicated. A skillful attorney, like the ones at Kira Doyle Law, can help you draft comprehensive documents that communicate your wishes and name the legal representatives, the personal representatives and trustees, who will administer your estate and or trust. If you are ready to safeguard your assets and make sure your family is well taken care of in the event you are no longer here, start by calling our office in St. Petersburg, Florida at, 727-537-6818 to schedule an appointment with one of our experienced estate planning attorneys today!