A will signed by Harper Lee eight days before her death has been unsealed by an Alabama court, after the New York Times filed a lawsuit arguing that the document should be a matter of public record. The will, written just before death at the age of 89 put most of her assets, including literary papers and copyrights, into a trust she formed in 2011.
The will was sealed in 2016, after Lee’s lawyer and executor Tonja Carter cited the late author’s desire for privacy in court.
“As the Court is no doubt aware, Ms Lee highly valued her privacy,” Carter’s lawyers wrote at the time. “She did not wish for her private financial affairs to be matters of public discussion. Ms Lee left a considerable legacy for the public in her published works; it is not the public’s business what private legacy she left for the beneficiaries of her will.”
Lee’s estate had argued that if the will were to be made public, it could result in the “potential harassment” of those named in it. Her family had also wanted the will to remain private. Lee was fiercely private, choosing to live a quiet life in the small town where she grew up, Monroeville. She didn’t like the fame that surrounded her classic, To Kill a Mockingbird, and detested that her small town had become a tourist attraction. In 2013, she sued a local museum selling Mockingbird t-shirts.
But the New York Times’s lawyers argued that Lee’s concerns about her privacy “were no different from those of others whose wills are processed through the court system”.
The paper reported that as both it and the estate prepared witnesses for the case, the estate withdrew its opposition and allowed the will to be made public. But, according to the paper, the unsealing of a document it described as “strikingly opaque” has “only deepened” the mystery around Lee.
Fiercely private, Lee published one of the 20th century’s most enduring works of fiction, To Kill a Mockingbird, in 1960. It was her first novel, and despite its popularity she did not release another – until 2015, when her publisher Penguin Random House announced that Carter had discovered the manuscript of Go Set a Watchman, “in a secure location where it had been affixed to an original typescript of To Kill a Mockingbird”.
Tonja Carter was involved in the controversial release of Go Set a Watchman. At the time of the release of the sequel to the classic, there was much debate about whether Lee had actually wanted the novel published, particularly since it was a book made up of what was originally the cut-out framing device of To Kill a Mockingbird. Lee at the time had suffered a stroke and had several mental and physical infirmities, and many doubted that she was capable of making a coherent decision about something like publication.
Lee’s unsealed will sheds little light on the situation. The New York Ties reports that it was signed on 11 February 2016, eight days before her death, and that it “directed that the bulk of her assets, including her literary properties, be transferred into a trust she formed in 2011”; the Mockingbird Trust, of which Carter was one of two trustees.
As trust documents are private, details of the future of Lee’s literary papers – and if there are any other unpublished manuscripts waiting to be discovered – remain unknown. In a piece for the Wall Street Journal in 2015, Carter alluded to a possible, third manuscript and wrote that experts would be invited to “examine and authenticate” all the safe deposit box’s documents.
The court papers do reveal that Lee’s heirs are her niece and three nephews, who will “receive an undisclosed portion of the estate through the trust”. And Carter is named as the estate’s executor, or personal representative, and has been given “wide-ranging powers” over the estate and Lee’s writings.
Court documents also show that To Kill a Mockingbird generates around $3m a year in royalties for the copyright holder., and therefore her estate continues to generate a substantial income. Lee did not marry or have any children, and it remains to be seen whether there will be any litigation over her will.