Lessons in Estate Planning and Privacy from Harper Lee

Harper Lee, legendary and reclusive author of the literary classic, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” passed away in February 2016 at the age of 89. Though Lee fiercely maintained her privacy, she did publish another novel before the end of her life entitled “Go Set a Watchman.” As a result of her literary success, Lee reportedly made $3 million per year in royalties from book sales—just from “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Her estate may be worth an estimated $35 million or more.

What makes Lee’s estate planning a unique case study is, first, that she was not married nor did she have children. Therefore, no apparent, direct heirs exist. However, she did have family, who are still living, including a nephew. Most likely, the estate will be awarded to them. The second part of Lee’s unique and fascinating estate planning is that we don’t know if she set up trusts for her family. Wealthy people often set up trusts for family members, because trusts are kept private. A trust is a secure way to keep one’s finances and who receives the person’s assets after death private. For the author, who was named number four on TIME’s Top 10 Most Reclusive Celebrities list, she would doubtless have wanted to keep her affairs out of the public eye. We have no way of knowing whether Lee got her affairs in order before her death, and her case was certainly one in which not preparing an adequate estate plan would have been against the author’s wishes in life.

According to the American Academy of Estate Planning Attorneys, “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.” Thus, setting up a trust or trusts would have probably been a suitable course of action for Harper Lee.

At Fields and Dennis LLP, Boston estate planning lawyer Sheryl Dennis is happy to set up trusts for those who want to preserve their privacy, even after they have passed on. As an estate planning lawyer, Sheryl understands that privacy is of vital importance, especially if a person has considerable finances and assets. She is a member of WealthCounsel, ElderCounsel and the Academy of Special Needs Planners. Please contact Sheryl Dennis today if you are looking to set up a trust.