Harper Lee, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird, died last week. Here’s the CNN story about her death. To Kill a Mockingbird and it’s tale of the fight for justice inspired millions, including many lawyers. We watched as Gregory Peck brought life to attorney character Atticus Finch in the film adaptation. Nelle Harper Lee died at age 89 in her hometown of Monroeville, AL. Lee’s experiences in Monroeville inspired the book, which was set in fictitious Maycomb County, AL.
While Lee’s finances are still unclear, it’s estimated that her estate may be worth well more than $35 million. The royalties from To Kill a Mockingbird alone are estimated at $3 million a year. In addition, Lee published another book in recent years, Go Set a Watchman.
Lee was known as one of the most reclusive of celebrities. She was number 4 on a list of reclusive celebrities compiled by Time. When asked to speak at an awards ceremony, she responded, “…it’s better to be silent than be a fool.”
While Lee was unmarried and had no children, she had a nephew and other relatives. Lee may have left her assets to them or to charity. It seems likely that Lee will have left an estate plan, since her father was an attorney. If not, her estate would go via intestacy to her relatives. If she left a plan, it is extremely likely she utilized a trust. By doing so, the reclusive author could have kept her finances and to whom she left her assets out of the prying eyes of the public.
A trust is the best way for celebrities and others to maximize their privacy. A will is a public document. Assets titled in the name of the individual are disclosed in a probate proceeding. But, if a trust is funded during lifetime, neither the assets owned by the trust, nor the terms of the trust, become public. Given Harper Lee’s reclusive nature, it seems likely that she took this prudent course of action.
Stephen C. Hartnett, J.D., LL.M.
Associate Director of Education
American Academy of Estate Planning Attorneys, Inc.
9444 Balboa Avenue, Suite 300
San Diego, California 92123
Phone: (800) 846-1555