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Three lessons from Harper Lee’s estate battle

A properly tailored estate plans can reduce the risk of future costly litigation. In many cases, a carefully tailored plan can achieve this goal. In other cases, unforeseen future conflict can lead to a contentious courtroom battle. The cause of this conflict can take on various forms, as recently highlighted in case involving famous author Harper Lee’s estate.

The estate of Harper Lee, author of the iconic book “To Kill a Mockingbird,” filed suit against a production company that had received approval to produce a Broadway adaptation of the story. The estate argued the production company’s version of the story strayed too far from the author’s original intent. The estate points to a license agreement signed by the author and production company in 2015 to support their claim. Harper Lee died shortly after entering this agreement.

The estate filed suit in Alabama against the production company to address the issue. The dispute centered on the portrayal of one of the lead characters, Atticus Finch. The producer stated that his version would show a “moral evolution” of Atticus Finch’s character. His artistic liberties with the story were designed to put the script in line with today’s social climate. Harper Lee’s estate argues the changes go beyond surface level changes. Instead, the estate argues the production’s changes adjust the fundamental basics of the characters. The production company also filed a counter suit against Ms. Harper’s estate. The suit alleged the dispute could result in over $10 million in damages due to a potential delay in the anticipated showtime and negative publicity.

The initial suit contained two main arguments. First, a venue dispute. The estate argued the case should be handled in New York. Second, whether or not the provisions within the contract noted above would allow such alterations. Ms. Harper’s estate faced a setback recently when the court sided with the production company on the venue issue. Ms. Harper’s estate’s attempt to keep the case in Alabama failed. The court ultimately chose to allow the case to move forward in New York.

Shortly thereafter, the estate agreed to settle the claim against the production company. Details of the settlement are scarce, but it appears the original writer and actor will continue with the production as originally planned.

The process provides more than just an interesting story about the future of an iconic novel. Those who are amidst an estate battle can learn these three lessons:

  • Details matter. The battle focuses on the wording of a provision within a single portion of the estate plan. If putting together an estate plan, craft the language carefully. If disputing a plan, review the details of the provisions at issue.
  • Location matters. One of the key battles in this case involved the location of the trial. Once the location was moved to New York, the estate appeared to shift to a focus on a resolution through negotiations as opposed to a continued courtroom battle on the other side of the country.
  • More than one option for a resolution. In some situations, it is important to fight for the estate plan to stand as written and meet the creator’s intent. In others, a negotiation may be suitable.

In this case the estate chose to settle. The right option for each estate will depend on the details of the estate plan, the intent of the creator and other relevant factors.