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Harper Lee – A Lack of Trust?


Harper Lee – A Lack of Trust?

It was reported recently that the Will of the late author Harper Lee had been unsealed after a Court in the state of Alabama ruled that it must be made public. Her Will had previously been sealed and the contents hidden from the public eye following her death in 2016. However, The New York Times has successfully convinced an Alabama Court that Harper Lee’s desire for privacy does not mean that she has any right to have her Will treated differently to others in Alabama whose Wills are made public documents on death.

The public interest in Harper Lee’s work heightened in 2015 after she released only her second novel since her famous debut ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ in 1960. This raised questions in the press of whether she had other unpublished works that may be released after her death.

This question may still loom for some time as Harper Lee’s Will leaves her entire estate to a Trust she created in 2011 and Trust Deeds are private documents in Alabama. The reasons for her estate going into Trust are reported to again be due to her desire for privacy.

There is an assumption that Trusts are only used by the wealthy, for tax planning and to hide assets, but this is not the case. Trusts are useful for a number of reasons and used widely across Scotland;

What are the most common uses for Trusts?

  • The most common use for Trusts in Scotland is in Wills to protect underage beneficiaries. Often, parents who have young children opt to state that if their children are, for example, under 21 at the time of their death, their share of their parents estate will be held in a Trust for them until their 21st birthday. This is because the age of legal inheritance in Scotland is 16 and this is commonly considered too young an age for an individual to inherit a substantial amount of money.
  • Many families choose to place assets in Trust during their lifetime, or from their Wills, to protect beneficiaries who may not be able to deal with owning such assets due to incapacity, mental health issues or addiction. This means that the beneficiary does not inherit the assets or money outright and ensures that a Trustee can look after and preserve the assets or money for them throughout their life.
  • Trusts can also be used for inheritance tax planning. Many couples are keen to reduce their estates for inheritance tax purposes but outright gifting may not always be appropriate, depending on the circumstances. The setting up of a trust and gifting into that trust is a good way of addressing concerns regarding inheritance tax and retaining an element of control, without having to gift assets outright to another individual.


There are many useful ways to utilise Trusts, both in estate and tax planning. They are certainly not just for the wealthy and are increasingly being used by families to protect both beneficiaries and assets.

Time will tell whether any other great literary works are held within Harper Lee’s Trust… if they are ever published at all. If her desire for privacy was as strong as we are led to believe, they may stay a private matter forever.

Chris Gardiner is a Solicitor in our Private Client team. If you have any questions about Trusts, Inheritance Tax or Asset Protection, please contact Chris on 01334 477107 or email cgardiner@thorntons-law.co.uk. Alternatively contact a member of our Private Client team.

Posted by Chris Gardiner

Senior Solicitor

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