"I sure would. Atticus can't do anything...."
"You'd be surprised," said Miss Maudie. "There's life in him yet."
"What can he do?"
"Well, he can make somebody's will so airtight can't anybody meddle with it."
-taken from the Pulitzer prize winning novel by Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird.
Harper Lee wrote into existence America's most beloved lawyer, Atticus Finch, in the classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird. He was a saintly crusader who fought for racial equality and stood up to his southern, small town's bigotry. Since To Kill a Mockingbird's publication in 1960, the novel has sold more than 40 million copies worldwide and is a staple in American school curriculums. The woman behind the famously beloved characters such as Scout, Atticus Finch and Boo Radley was a bit of a mystery herself, though. Harper Lee was born April 28, 1926 in Monroeville, Alabama, and though her book has been widely acclaimed since it first came out, and made her a very wealthy woman, she abhorred the spotlight and was fiercely protective of her privacy. She rarely gave interviews and she had a penchant for keeping her personal affairs confidential.
Of course, this only made the public more interested in her, and when she died two years ago, the mystery surrounding her life and her work deepened. In February of this year, an Alabama court unsealed Ms. Lee's Will on the basis of a lawsuit filed by the New York Times seeking to review its contents arguing that Wills filed in probate court are typically public records, but it only left more unanswered questions. Her Will was signed February 11, 2016, only eight days prior to her death and left the bulk of her assets to be directed to a trust she had formed in 2011. Ms. Lee never married or had children, she lived much of her life with her sister, Alice Lee. Alice Lee was a partner at Barnett, Bugg, Lee and Carter Law Firm and practiced real estate and probate law until she was 100 years old! She was Harper Lee's legal and financial advisor, and most importantly, her protector for almost as long as she lived, which happened to be until she was 103 years old. Upon her death in 2014, one of her partners, Tonja B. Carter, took over handling Ms. Lee's affairs. When Harper Lee's Will was unsealed February 27th of this year, much to the chagrin of close friends and family, who felt it directly opposed her desire for privacy in life, it was revealed Ms. Carter was named the executor and gave her substantial control over the estate and her literary properties. The estate first claimed in court papers that making her Will public could lead to the potential harassment of the individuals identified within it. Then, however, as both sides prepared to depose witnesses, the estate, without disclosing its reasons, withdrew its opposition to making the Will public.
There has been much controversy surrounding the Will, given its strikingly opaque characteristics, and Ms. Carter herself. The Will is not uncommon and it is
typically referred to as a pour-over Will where anything in the estate goes over to the trust and trust documents are private. It's quite often done by people of notoriety, great means and individuals who simply want to be private. What we do know is that in 2011 Ms. Carter met with a Sotheby's expert, one of the world's largest brokers of fine art, real estate and collectibles, and it was during that meeting that the manuscript for Go Set a Watchman, Ms. Lee's second novel, was supposedly discovered. Ms. Carter claims she left the meeting early and didn't know of the manuscript's existence until 2014, but others that were present say she saw what they did. It is rumored that Ms. Carter had been sitting on the secret discovery until the time of Ms. Lee's sister's death. Strangely, it was then published in July of 2015 as a sequel to Mockingbird. Many though, have speculated that Watchman, written in 1957, was merely a rough draft to the novel everyone has come to know and love as To Kill a Mockingbird. In Go Set a Watchman, Atticus is an aging racist which is a 180-degree turnabout from the Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird. Harper Lee once said, in one of her final interviews in 1964: "I think the thing I most deplore about American Writing...is lack of craftsmanship. It comes right down to this- the lack of absolute love for language, the lack of sitting down and working a good idea into a gem of an idea." Could it be that Go Set a Watchman was a good idea, and To Kill a Mockingbird was transformed through sitting down and working it into a gem of an idea?
Some have claimed Ms. Carter has amassed too much power over Ms. Lee's career and legacy. As personal representative of the estate, Ms. Carter has been provided with wide-ranging powers to shepherd Ms. Lee's literary legacy and the rest of her assets. Curiously, Ms. Lee said for much of her lifetime, she would never publish another book again, and in 2007 she suffered a stroke. When she signed away the copyright in 2013, she was nearly blind and deaf. Skepticism about how cognate she was during her final years continues to grow. During Harper Lee's lifetime she took pains to protect her intellectual property and often scorned attempts to commercialize her novel. She once sued a local museum for selling "Mockingbird" themed t-shirts and trinkets. She complained about tourists who lingered in her front yard and was irritated when they came in vans. She was fiercely private, refused interviews, hated being in the spotlight, and yet, at the end of her life at the age of 89, from an assisted living facility, published a "sequel" to her one and only book and had signed away the copyrights. The publication of her second novel pitted her longtime friends against her lawyer, agent and publisher, as those who knew her best doubted she had really approved of the publication. Within the first week of its publication by HarperCollins it sold more than 1.1 million copies, making it the fastest-selling book in company history, and also generating the kind of spectacle Ms. Lee loathed.
Ms. Carter is seen by some as a schemer who is entitled to compensation for her work as the Will allows the personal representative to earn additional fees as part of an organization that does work for the estate, who took advantage of an elderly and aging
stroke victim, while others still, view her as Ms. Lee's staunchest protector. Ms. Carter helps to run a nonprofit, the Mockingbird Company, created in 2015, that puts on a dramatization of To Kill a Mockingbird in Monroeville once a year. There are also plans for a Broadway production this year, and a graphic novel, approved by Ms. Lee's estate, that will be published in the fall. There are also plans for the Harper Lee Trail, which local officials hope will attract hundreds of thousands of tourists a year to Monroeville. Planned attractions also include a museum and replications of characters' houses from To Kill a Mockingbird. How this all would sit with Harper Lee, were she still alive, will now forever remain unknown. Ms. Carter served as one of the two trustees, to the Mockingbird Trust, she is the executor to the Will, she helps to run the nonprofit, the Mockingbird Company, and has been a long-time friend and acquaintance to the Lee family. Despite the controversy and rumors that have been swirling around this interesting case since its start, hopefully Ms. Carter is truly making decisions for her now deceased friend and client in a way she deems appropriate, based on what she knew Harper Lee wanted in life. As huge fans of the book, To Kill a Mockingbird, and lawyers ourselves, like Alice Lee, and Atticus Finch, this particular news piece, first ran by The New York Times, could not have fascinated us more here at Layman, D'Atri and Associates, LLC. It also encouraged us to re-iterate once again, the massive importance of choosing the right individuals to fill the key roles of your estate plan. If this interested you and you would like to know more about your own personal estate planning, we can be reached at our office at 330-493-8833.