Harper Lee's lawyer holds control of writings and estate, will reveals

Harper Lee's lawyer holds control of writings and estate, will reveals

The will of Harper Lee has been unsealed, showing that the bulk of her assets, including her literary properties, were transferred to a trust controlled by her lawyer and personal representative Tonja Carter.

Two years after the author died aged 89, the contents of her will has been revealed following a petition from the New York Times. The newspaper argued that the documents were a “matter of public record” despite opposition from Carter and the author’s estate, according to the NYT.

The will, signed by the To Kill a Mockingbird author on February 11th 2016, eight days before her death, showed the author directed that the bulk of her assets, including her literary properties, should be transferred into a trust she formed in 2011, of which Carter is one of two trustees. Trust documents are private, so it is unknown whether she wrote a third manuscript, as Carter alluded to in a 2015 interview with the Wall Street Journal.

The court papers identified her heirs and closest living relatives as a niece and three nephews, who are expected to receive an undisclosed portion of the estate through the trust.

Carter had gone to court in 2016 to persuade the court in Monroe, Alabama, Lee’s hometown, to seal the will, citing Lee’s desire for privacy. The estate had suggested that making the papers public could lead to “potential harassment” of individuals named in it. However, Carter withdrew her opposition last week without giving a reason.

On Tuesday (February 26th) the will was unsealed following a lawsuit from the NYT which claims that the documents' "lack of transparency will likely fuel skepticism among those who feel that Carter wielded too much power over Lee’s career and legacy".

“It’s a public record, and the press and the public have a right to public records,” said Archie Reeves, the lawyer who represented the newspaper.

The reclusive author was born in 1926 in Monroeville, Alabama, where she attended Huntingdon College and studied law at the University of Alabama. Despite winning numerous literary awards, including the Pulitzer Prize and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, she stayed in Monroeville until 2014.

Her hugely successful debut, To Kill a Mockingbird, which explored racial intolerance in the Deep South, was published in 1960 by William Heinemann in the UK and by Lippincott in the US.

The original manuscript of Lee’s “surprise second novel”, Go Set a Watchman, was considered to have been lost until the autumn of 2014, when Carter discovered it in a secure location apparently affixed to an original typescript of To Kill a Mockingbird. The publication plans sparked concerns over possible elder abuse, but state investigators quickly closed the case, with Lee’s agent Andrew Nurnberg describing the claims as “shameful”.

It was published in 2015 by Penguin Random House UK and HarperCollins in the US simultaneously. The book set a new record for the number of copies sold at US chain Barnes & Noble stores in one day, while in the UK it shifted over 105,000 copies in first-day sales, according to PRH.

Altogether Lee has sold 2,320,447 copies for £15m according to Nielsen BookScan. Around 535,000 copies and just under £5m derive from Go Set a Watchman with To Kill A Mockingbird also predating BookScan by many years.