The beloved author Harper Lee was known for two things: 1. The coming-of-age classic To Kill a Mockingbird and 2. Her desire to keep her personal affairs out of the public eye. When she died in 2016, many thought her will might reveal whether readers could expect additional books written by her to be published, and tell us a little more about her mysterious private life. Earlier this year, her will was finally made public, but it leaves us with more questions than answers.
Lee has always been something of an enigma. Her semi-autobiographical novel had become a best-seller that generations of school children read. But she was extremely reluctant to bask in the spotlight or discuss the social and cultural impact of the book in public. It was rumored she was a recluse, but those who lived in her native Monroeville, Alabama regularly saw her going about her business around town.
For decades, people speculated that Lee might arrange to have additional books published after her death. So, when a follow-up to Mockingbird was published in 2015, as Lee’s health was failing, many gleefully took it as a sign that there was more to come. But the book’s release also raised doubts about whether Lee was in full control of her life. Go Set A Watchman, was not really a sequel, but a first draft of what ultimately became Mockingbird after much editing and rewriting.
After Lee passed away, the public clamored for a glimpse at her will, hoping for information about additional novels, or some insight into why she or someone acting on her behalf had released a book the prior year after such a long time between publications. But her estate successfully argued that her will should be sealed, and kept private. It has only been released recently because The New York Times sued, and the estate relented.
Those who thought it would answer questions about Lee’s life or the decision to release Watchman were sorely disappointed when they finally got a glimpse of it. Like any goodwill, it reveals very little about its author or her plans for any other written works. Lee’s attorneys set up trusts that will carry out the majority of her end-of-life plans out of the public eye. Privacy is one of the main benefits of using trusts, and Lee’s estate plan is the perfect example of how little information the public has access to when things are done properly.
Modern estate plans rarely rely on wills to accomplish all of their creator’s goals. It is far more common to use a trust or multiple trusts to simplify the estate administration process. Trustees can carry out their duties without court approval, so probating the estate is a breeze, which saves time and money while keeping things out of the public eye. Trusts can also be used to reduce tax burdens, and allow the creator to have some say over what will happen to their assets long after they are gone. Even people will very simple end-of-life wishes should consider incorporating a trust into their estate plan and other estate planning strategies.