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Harper Lee's Last Book | Elder Financial Abuse?

Harper Lee Elder Financial Abuse.jpgThe Alabama novelist Harper Lee is remembered today as the author of an iconic work of literature that has influenced millions of people throughout the world since its publication in 1960. To Kill a Mockingbird not only won her the Pulitzer Prize in 1961, but the 1962 movie starring Gregory Peck won three Oscars and continues to entertain audiences to this day.

Despite her fame and wealth, Lee remained a recluse for most of her life, preferring to reside quietly in a modest New York apartment with her older sister. She never married -- and she never wrote another novel.

Or did she?

In 2015, 55 years after the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee's lawyer and the trustee of her estate, Tonja B. Carter, reported that she found a lost manuscript for a sequel to Mockingbird in a safe deposit box. It was called Go Set a Watchman, and Carter negotiated a lucrative deal with HarperCollins to publish the book. The discovery was heralded by many as a watershed moment in American literature, but it also raised several issues.

First, Lee's sister and caregiver, Alice, had died a few months before the announcement by Carter. Alice was fiercely protective of her sister's life and legacy, and she may have opposed publishing Watchman. Second, Lee herself was in declining health. She had a stroke in 2007, was mostly deaf and blind, and was confined to a wheelchair. Many of her friends worried about her cognitive health. After so many years, why would she want to publish a long-forgotten novel?

It turned out that Go Set a Watchman was Lee's first attempt at writing To Kill a Mockingbird, and that the novel had been turned down by publishers in the mid-'50s. Lee re-wrote it and, as they say, the rest is history. The Watchman novel remained in draft form until Lee's lawyer brought it to a publisher.

A few months before her death in February 2016 at the age of 89, a complaint was filed with the State of Alabama's Human Resources Department and Alabama Securities Commission. They asked the question: was Lee a victim of elder financial abuse? Lee herself was interviewed at an assisted-living facility, after which the State decided to close the case.

Although no charges were ever filed, a friend of Lee's told The New York Times that Lee was "foggy." Even Lee's sister Alice told a magazine writer six years earlier that Lee .."doesn't know from one minute to the other what she's told anybody..."

It seems that we'll never know the full story. The case is now closed, the book is published, and history will ultimately judge whether Lee really wanted to publish Watchman or not.

Elder Financial Abuse can be a difficult crime to prove. When older people with cognitive and physical impairment make important financial decisions, questions should always be raised. Does the senior understand what they are signing? Are they making decisions of their own free will or is there undue influence? Who stands to benefit?

It behooves all of us to be vigilant and to do our best to protect those who are no longer able to protect themselves.

Before you go, please let me know if you'd like to receive a free copy of my first book, The Wolf at the Door, or my new book, Alzheimer's, Widowed Stepmothers & Estate Crimes. Just send your address in an email to me at [email protected], and I'll be glad to put one in the mail.

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