Harper Lee's Will Was Unsealed but It Doesn't Tell Us Much

Illustration for article titled Harper Lee's Will Was Unsealed but It Doesn't Tell Us Much
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The long saga of Harper Lee’s estate continues: The New York Times managed to get her will unsealed, but apparently it didn’t reveal too much.


The Times reported that, “On Tuesday, an Alabama court unsealed Ms. Lee’s will, but the mystery surrounding one of American literature’s most cherished authors only deepened.” The piece continued, basically throwing around question marks like confetti:

The will, signed on February 11, 2016, eight days before her death, directed that the bulk of her assets, including her literary properties, be transferred into a trust she formed in 2011.

Trust documents are private, so all questions about what will become of her literary papers and who beyond her closest relatives might benefit from her assets, will remain unanswered for now.

It is also unclear how the will differed from any prior document Ms. Lee may have created to distribute her assets.

Lee’s personal attorney and the executor of the trust, Tonya Carter—yes, her again—had gotten the will sealed in 2016, “citing Ms. Lee’s desire for privacy,” according to the paper, which sued to have the record open on the grounds that such records are typically public. Speaking of Carter, the Times said:

The document’s lack of transparency will likely fuel skepticism among those who feel that Ms. Carter had amassed too much power over Ms. Lee’s career and legacy. The will gives Ms. Carter substantial control over Ms. Lee’s estate and her literary properties, which are assigned to the Mockingbird Trust, an entity that was formed in 2011. Ms. Carter served as one of its two trustees at the time.

As a personal representative, Ms. Carter is entitled to compensation for her work. The will allows the personal representative to earn additional fees as part of an organization, like a law firm, that does work for the estate.

Carter declined to comment to the Times.

Senior Editor at Jezebel, specializing in books, royals, romance novels, houses, history, and the stories we tell about domesticity and femininity. Resident Windsor expert.



I see that some commenters aren’t sure why so much attention is being given to the will and trust. Personally, I think it goes to the NYT and others who have cast Tonya Carter as a manipulative, avaricious woman who is viewed by some to have controlled Harper Lee’s life and now continues to make bank after Lee passed away.

This is a scenario that plays out in a lot of reader’s families and so it resonates with them and automatically implicates Carter as the bad guy, and echoes what has gone on in their own families. So the NYT can be pretty confident that people will read the stories and they will rack up the comments. The story is akin to clickbait. All that’s missing is the word “NEXT” at the bottom of each part of the story.

It’s the reason that I read this story. And was disappointed that yet another dead end is all that they could muster up. Getting the will unsealed resulted in no new information of any importance. Even though they knew they really had nothing to say they still wrote about it because they knew people would read it. And letting us know that it was only six days before Lee died, it is written as if Carter was hovering over her and demanding she sign.