Harper Lee, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird, died last month at 89. Since her death, her executor first requested, and received, permission to keep her will private resulting in secrecy regarding the value of estate and her beneficiaries.  Last week her executor notified the publisher of the mass market (re:  less expensive) version of To Kill a Mockingbird that it would no longer allow the publication of that version of Lee’s beloved novel.  

The least expensive version will now retail for $14.99 or $16.99 compared to the current $8.99, financially harming schools that purchase the book for their students.  For the record, the executor of Lee’s estate is also her attorney who “discovered” a draft of  Go Set a Watchman in Lee’s safe deposit box and oversaw its publication last year.  Also for the record, Lee suffered a stroke in 2007 and spent her last years in a wheelchair mostly deaf and blind with impaired memory.  Lee, who had no children nor grandchildren, zealously guarded her privacy and lived frugally even though she earned $3.2 million annually in royalties from Mockingbird. 

Several points:

  1. Executors can have broad powers to handle a decedent’s estate whether those powers are granted in the will or by statute, including the power to run a decedent’s business.
  2. The compensation of executors is set by statute.  In Ohio, executors receive 4% of the first $100K in assets, 3% of the next $300K, and 2% of everything above $400K.
  3. Due to the compensation structure, the larger an estate, the larger the compensation for the executor.
  4. Increasing the income and size of an estate by increasing the price of books to schools and publishing a book that likely did not merit publishing is not a way to keep the reputation of Harper Lee unsullied.
  5. I almost always decline to serve as executor for my clients when asked due to the perception of a conflict of interest.
  6. Thankfully Lee’s attorney/executor never met JD Salinger or else we would have been subjected to a crappy draft of Catcher in the Rye marketed as a new discovery during the last year of his life.