Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, a favorite book and movie of lawyers, died in 2016. To Kill a Mockingbird was Lee’s first and only novel for 55 years. In 2015 she published a sequel, To Set a Watchman, that features Scout, the young daughter of Atticus Finch, the principled lawyer of the first book, as an adult and reveals that Atticus was a segregationist. Though set some 20 years after the events depicted in Mockingbird, Watchman was actually written before it.
Fans and critics of Ms. Lee had hoped that her will, which was unsealed by an Alabama court earlier this week, would shed some light on her decision to publish the second book so long after the first, and, of course, on her assets and their distribution. In both cases, all they received was disappointment. That’s because the will is what is known as a pour-over will. All it does is name a personal representative (Ms. Lee’s long-time attorney, Tonja Carter) and direct that everything that Ms. Lee owned at the time of her death be put into an existing trust. The trust is a private document that need not be filed with the court.
The New York Times had sued to have the will unsealed, citing the public’s “right to know.” Ms. Lee’s estate had fought the lawsuit but suddenly withdrew its objection. However, as it turned out, the lawsuit was much ado about nothing.
Pour-over wills into established trusts are common estate planning techniques. One of their purposes is precisely what Ms. Lee accomplished: to shield the disposition of her estate from anyone but those directly impacted by it. Other reasons are to effectively remove property from one’s estate to save estate taxes and protect the property from potential creditors. Steve Jobs did just that through the use of trusts created and funded during his life.