Harper Lee’s will, unsealed after a lawsuit, raises questions

Harper Lee
(Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

A court in Alabama unsealed the will of Harper Lee, and the result raises questions about the fate of the estate of the author of “To Kill A Mockingbird.”

The New York Times sued to have the document made public. Generally a will would have been part of the public record.

Lee’s will had been sealed since 2016, after her attorney, Tonja B. Carter, had argued in court that the privacy of her late client, who was famously publicity-averse, should be respected.


The will, which Lee signed just eight days before she died, named Carter the executor of her estate. The author directed most of her assets — most likely to include her papers — be transferred to the Mockingbird Trust, which was set up in 2011.

“Trust documents are private,” the New York Times reports, “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.”

Published in 1960, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, is a staple of school curricula for its treatment of racism and injustice in a small Southern town. The book has never been out of print, and at the time of Lee’s death in 2016 had sold more than 40 million copies.

After the New York Times sued to have the will unsealed, Lee’s estate last week said it would no longer oppose its being made public.

Carter served as Lee’s legal representative for several years, taking over for Harper Lee’s sister Alice Lee, who practiced law until 2012, when she was 100.

Carter was thrust into the national spotlight in 2015, after Harper Collins, Lee’s publisher, announced that it would release Lee’s second novel, “Go Set a Watchman.”

In a news release, Lee said that she “was surprised and delighted when my dear friend and lawyer Tonja Carter discovered” the manuscript for the novel in a safe deposit box.

But many were skeptical that Lee, who was 88 at the time and struggling with health issues, was competent enough to approve the publication of the novel. The state of Alabama investigated a claim of elder abuse against Lee, but later said that the claim was unfounded. Lee died the following year at 89.


The New York Times notes that Lee’s niece and three nephews are expected to receive a portion of her estate, although because trust documents are considered private in Alabama, it’s not known exactly how much they stand to inherit.