When is an Estate Plan Like a Mystery Novel?

Harper leeWhen the estate plan belongs to the reclusive Harper Lee who died last week in Alabama, it’s anyone guess as to how, when, why and where her estate will go.

Nelle Harper Lee left the world with two famous books: "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "Go Set a Watchman." While the value of her estate isn't exactly known, an old lawsuit showed that Lee earned nearly $1.7 million during a six-month period in 2009 — before the announcement of the release of her second book last year, sales of which were well over $40 million.

Harper Lee never married and had no children. Her parents and siblings died years ago—and those closest to her have been accused of scamming her, supposedly publishing her second book over her protests and only after she was incapacitated by Alzheimer’s disease. So what happens now? If it is true that her fiduciaries serve her so poorly it will be a very sad result for this sensitive, very private person.  The lesson it again provides to us ‘common folk’ is the importance of naming people whose loyalty and ethics are without question when creating important estate planning documents; in this case, a Durable Power of Attorney.

Lee once publicly said she had a will, but only her friends and family know for certain. She most likely didn't die without her affairs in order: her father and sister were both practicing attorneys (and her estate has been involved in several lawsuits). Given her reclusive nature, she more likely created a trust rather than a will in order to avoid public scrutiny. Wills become public record when they are submitted for probate, whereas trusts are privately administered. Some reports say Lee's lawyer is the trustee to her estate but she also has a nephew.

In most instances, when an individual dies with a will as their estate plan, there will be an executor designated in the will who is in charge of moving the administrative process along. At this point, so soon after her death, it's pretty much conjecture and speculation as to what her estate plan might have been.  One thing is certain, however: The New York Post reported that Lee's estate plan specifically includes a caveat that Hollywood shall never have the right to make another "Mockingbird" motion picture. Her admiration for the performance by Gregory Peck in the role of Atticus Finch was one she felt could never be duplicated.  At least she will have the final say in this matter of great importance to her via her properly drafted estate plan.

Reference: International Business Times (February 19, 2016) "Did Harper Lee Have a Will? Here's What Could Happen To The 'To Kill A Mockingbird' Author's Money"


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