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Harper Lee and the Elder Abuse Debate

harper lee

Harper Lee, the renowned author of “To Kill a Mockingbird” has a new book coming out this summer, at the spry age of 88. Her new book, titled, “Go Set a Watchman,” takes place in the 1950’s and is centered around the character Scout as an adult, from To Kill a Mockingbird. But the circumstances surrounding the discovery of the novel – which was written over 50 years ago – are mysterious. The book was apparently discovered by her attorney, Ms. Carter, although the details surrounding just how she found it are somewhat unclear. The decision to publish also took place just after the passing of Ms. Lee’s 103 year old sister, who had been her attorney and “protector” for most of Ms. Lee’s life. In 2007, Harper Lee suffered a stroke and now resides in an assisted care facility. Friends who know her claim she is hard of hearing and seeing.

Just after Harper Collins (the publisher) announced that “Go Set a Watchman” would come out in July of this year, a controversy began to stir. Stories swirled in the press about whether or not Ms. Lee really wanted to publish her long lost book, or she was being subject to undue influence by her attorney and publisher. In other words, was Harper Lee a victim of Financial Elder Abuse?

The Alabama Department of Human Resources began an investigation into whether Ms. Lee was indeed a victim of Financial Elder Abuse. They asked the securities commission of Alabama to join their investigative team. According to reports, the commission’s investigator went to Ms. Lee’s assisted-living facility in Monroeville, Alabama to interview her. The investigation concluded that indeed Harper Lee was “capable of making her own decisions,” and no Elder Abuse had been committed. Still, the sudden discovery and subsequent swift publication deal of her new book just after the passing of her sister do leave one skeptical. In addition, her lawyer Ms. Carter, had been involved in another Financial Elder Abuse Lawsuit just 2 years ago. In 2013, a federal lawsuit was filed against her former agent, Samuel Pinkus, accusing him of engaging in a scheme to “dupe” her into signing over the copyright to “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Under this alleged scheme, the copyright would become property of a company controlled by Mr. Pinkus.

In the State of California, financial elder abuse is generally defined as the taking of the assets of an elderly person with intent to defraud. Undue influence is pressure applied on a vulnerable adult to convince them to take or not take a certain action. Here, the intellectual property owned by Harper Lee (i.e. the rights to this book) could be quite valuable. If Ms. Carter or the publishing house applied undue influence on Ms. Lee to convince her to sign over her rights to a valuable book, then that could be construed as financial elder abuse.

If you believe someone you know is being subjected to elder abuse, contact an Elder Law attorney to discuss your situation. I am an experienced and compassionate Elder Law Attorney who has handled many financial elder abuse cases in Contra Costa County and Alameda County. I offer a free 30 minute consultation at my Elder Law and Estate Planning firm in Walnut Creek. Call 925-322-1763 or email me at:

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