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Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Harper Lee's Estate Ends Mass Market Edition of "To Kill a Mockingbird"

When we leave an executor in charge of our estate, we assume that he or she is going to act according to our wishes, and in the best interests of us and our beneficiaries. It's a real leap of faith. In most cases, our choice works out, but in other cases, questions are raised about just who the executor is really looking out for.

An example of this situation is that of Harper Lee, the renowned author whose novel "To Kill a Mockingbird" is considered an American classic. After this book was published in 1960, Ms. Lee didn't write any more books for public reading. Then in 2014, her sequel to "To Kill a Mockingbird", called "Go Set a Watchman", appeared on the scene.

At that time, there was quite a bit of controversy about whether the sequel should have been published. Harper Lee was 88 years old at the time, but apparently did not have mental capacity and her sister, Alice, was her caretaker and trustee. It appears that Alice did not allow the publication of the sequel, believing that the author did not want it published. After Alice's death, Harper Lee's friend and lawyer, Tonya Carter, authorized publication of the book. The controversy was based at least in part on the fact that the manuscript was discovered in 2011 (while Alice was still in charge) but Carter insists that she was out of the room on an errand when it was discovered, and that she didn't know about it until 2014.

Harper Lee passed away recently and now Carter is in charge of her estate. Carter's latest move has raised even more questions about her motives, as she has ordered that the mass market ($9) version of the book will no longer be produced, and only the more expensive ($17) version will be available. Friends of the author are speaking up and saying that Carter is making decisions that are really "cash grabs" for herself and are not what the deceased wanted. Nobody can check though, because Carter successfully applied to the court to have the will sealed.

Is this a case of a trustee finding ways to maximize her benefit from a trust? Did she really bide her time until all obstacles were cleared, then publish a book she knew would multiply the estate and her fees? Or is she simply doing exactly what the will tells her to do? Without referring to the will itself, we will never know. What is easy to see is that the lack of information leaves plenty of room for speculation. This is why I always tell executors to be as forthcoming and honest with information as they possibly can within the parameters of their specific estate.

All writers should name literary executors in their wills, who may or may not be the executor of the rest of the estate as well. When naming a literary executor, the writer should also leave instructions about publication of manuscripts, translations of existing books, and anything else that is relevant to that particular writer. While most writers will never achieve Harper Lee's success, their writing is nonetheless important to their own estates and families, and nobody wants to deplete an estate by fighting about it in court.

To read more about this story on The Reading Room, as well as other stories related to Harper Lee, click here.



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