When Nelle Harper Lee died Friday in Monroeville, Alabama, she left the world with two famous books — "To Kill A Mockingbird" and "Go Set A Watchman" — and left her loved ones with a fortune.
Though the true value of Lee's estate wasn't immediately clear Friday, paperwork from an old lawsuit indicated Lee earned nearly $1.7 million during a six-month period in 2009. If that's typical, according to Celebrity Net Worth's calculations, she was earning more than $9,000 a day. And that's before she announced the release of her second book last year, sales of which were set to total $40 million.
Lee never married and had no children, her parents and siblings died years ago and the people closest to her have been accused of scamming her. So what happens now to the legendary writer's earnings, which will likely continue to grow both immediately and as time goes on and millions read her works?
Lee once publicly referenced having a will, but only her friends and family know for sure. Lee's last formal interview was in 1964, and her publisher HarperCollins did not return messages left Friday asking about the future of her estate. Lawyers in Alabama explained Friday she likely made provisions for after her death, but there are more questions than answers at this point.
"If she had an estate plan, who did she leave it to?" asked Raley L. Wiggins, an estate planning attorney in Montgomery, Alabama, 100 miles away from Lee's hometown. "It might be the people you suspect, or she might've left it all to the cat or all to charity. We just don't know."
If he had to guess, Wiggins said he thought Lee, who was 89, probably didn't die without her affairs in order, since the writer's father and sister were both practicing lawyers (and her estate has been involved in multiple lawsuits). With a will, what happens next could prove messy as it typically takes six months to a year for the Alabama courts to work the details out, he said.
But given her desire for privacy, Lee may have opted for a trust rather than a will, Wiggins suggested. Wills become public record when they are submitted to probate court, whereas trusts just get taken over by someone else. J.D. Salinger, another famous author who was reclusive, took this route with the Salinger Literary Trust. He was the sole trustee until his death, at which point the estate was turned over to his wife, Colleen, and son, Matthew, according to Forbes.
Lee could also have chosen a will that refers largely to a trust (for the record, legal site Nolo suggests always having some sort of will). In that case, Wiggins said, "there may not be a whole lot of juicy information" that comes out about the reclusive author. "The trust document then would say give this to so-and-so and $500 to my favorite nephew," he added.
It's been previously reported that Tonja Carter, Lee's lawyer, is the trustee to her estate. But Lee actually also does have a nephew, Hank Conner, who gave AL.com an exclusive statement about her death Friday. Lee also recently created a nonprofit, the Mockingbird Company, that was due to take over production of Monroeville's "Mockingbird" plays this year.
Wiggins, who works for Red Oak Legal, P.C., said probate and non-probate options are about equally popular among his elderly clients.
Ralph and Michael Holberg, a father-son team of attorneys in Mobile, Alabama, also said it would make sense for Lee to have a trust for privacy reasons.
"I can go look at the probate file just like you can," Michael Holberg said. "But because she was so reclusive it may absolutely be that everything she owned ... [she put] into a trust that would be immune from the press and the population of Monroe County and elsewhere to look at."
Ralph Holberg mentioned that in some cases, artists will unofficially designate a person to handle their memorabilia after death. For Lee, this could include manuscripts or other belongings of significance.
As for a timeline, Michael Holberg said that if Lee has a will, it can't be submitted to probate court until five days after her death. The statute of limitations expires after five years. "Most of the time when people pass away, the family members or the person nominated as the executor under the will typically moves quickly," he added.
At this point, nearly everything is speculation. However, according to the New York Post the world does know one thing about Lee's estate plan: it specifically includes a caveat that Hollywood never make another "Mockingbird" movie.