Harper Lee, Old Age, and Capacity to Contract

By Ephrat Livni, Esq. on February 22, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The novelist Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird and last summer's release Go Set a Watchman -- died last week at age 89. She reportedly died peacefully but her passage doesn't put to rest the controversial questions surrounding Lee's most recent publication and whether she was of sound mind, giving her permission to publish. It only makes them more pressing.

Lee was a private woman who led a solitary life, out of the spotlight for decades. But in the last year, she repeatedly made headlines with the announcement of a new book's release and the making of a musical of her classic novel. Many wonder whether Lee really wanted all this.

Who Was Harper Lee?

Nelle Harper Lee was born in 1926 in Monroeville, Alabama, one of four children. She grew up near another great American writer, Truman Capote, and they remained friends until his death in 1984. But unlike Capote, Lee was a recluse who avoided the spotlight.

In 1960, Harper Lee became internationally famous for her book about race and justice in the US. To Kill a Mockingbird won a Pulitzer Prize and Lee's first novel was made into a film starring Gregory Peck in 1962.

Then there was no word from Harper Lee for a very long time. She did not give interviews or publish books or articles, nor did she sell the rights to her novel for other projects. In one of her last radio interviews in 1964, she said: "All I want to be is the Jane Austen of South Alabama."

Enter the New Millennium

Despite her media disappearance, Lee's book was well-loved and she continued to gain fans over the generations. Then last year, her publisher Harper Collins announced the release of a once-lost manuscript, a sort of draft of her classic, that paints a less noble picture of characters who had become beloved in American literature.

Meanwhile, last month it was announced that Lee's classic novel would be made into a musical. Did Harper Lee want all this? Or is there reason to suspect that publishers and agents had a heavy hand in stirring last-minute interest in Lee and gaining from some new properties?

Capacity to Contract

In September, 2013, Lee settled a lawsuit with the son-in-law of her former agent, who she claimed swindled her out of royalties. She said then that her literary agent took advantage of her age and mental infirmities and that she lacked the capacity to contract.

Given her relatively rapid subsequent demise, and the flurry of new projects before her death, the question of whether she could decide to enter into a contract looms large. The details of Lee's settlement were never released, and it seems it will be impossible for us to ever know whether she was truly at peace with all the activity. But it does serve as an important reminder that the elderly are especially vulnerable and need assistance protecting their interests.

Consult With Counsel

If you are concerned about protecting your interests or those of an elder, speak to an estate planning lawyer. Get help.

Related Resources:

Copied to clipboard