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Alabama judge seals Harper Lee's will from public

A Monroe County judge ruled last week to seal "To Kill a Mockingbird" author's will from the public eye. Lee died on Feb. 19. 

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    In this Aug. 20, 2007, file photo, author Harper Lee smiles during a ceremony honoring the four new members of the Alabama Academy of Honor at the Capitol in Montgomery, Ala. Monroe County Probate Judge Greg Norris signed an order last week to seal Lee’s will from public view, according to court records available Monday. Lawyers for Lee’s personal representative and attorney, Tonja Carter, had asked for the will to remain private and Lee's heirs and relatives agreed to the request, according to the court filing.
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Famously private in life, "To Kill a Mockingbird" author Harper Lee is keeping her secrets even in death.

Monroe County Probate Judge Greg Norris signed an order last week to seal Lee's will from public view, according to court records available Monday. Lawyers for Lee's personal representative and attorney, Tonja Carter, had asked for the will to remain private and Lee's heirs and relatives agreed to the request, according to the court filing.

"As the Court is no doubt aware, Ms. Lee highly valued her privacy," the lawyers wrote. "She did not wish for her private financial affairs to be matters of public discussion. Ms. Lee left a considerable legacy for the public in her published works; it is not the public's business what private legacy she left for the beneficiaries of her will."

Carter represented Lee for several years and once practiced law with the writer's sister, Alice Lee.

In a two-page order issued a week ago Monday, Norris wrote that he agreed there was a threat of public intrusion and harassment for Lee's heirs. They and Lee's next of kin have a right to inspect the contents of the will and accompanying file, but no one else does, he wrote. The order indicated that Norris held a hearing on the motion.

The judge ordered that a label be put on the file stating, "UNDER SEAL: DO NOT ALLOW PUBLIC INSPECTION."

Norris on Monday said the town was happy to protect the privacy of its most famous citizen.

He said the publication of Lee's second book, "Go Set a Watchman" last year sparked a barrage of accusations and claims, many of them aimed at Carter.

Critics, including some townspeople in Monroeville, questioned whether Carter was representing Lee's wishes by helping with the release of the new book and whether the lawyer was cutting off access to the author, who never commented publicly on "Watchman."

"I would hate for (Lee's) family to go through any of that," Norris said.

Lee's will will go through the normal probate process, Norris said. A notice will be put in the newspaper with a six-month window for people to make claims.

Wills are generally public documents once they are filed in probate court, said Dennis Bailey, an attorney who also served as general counsel for the Alabama Press Association. However, he said, Alabama case law gives judges the ability to seal records under a strict set of circumstances, including if disclosure would pose a serious threat of harassment, exploitation, physical intrusion, or other harm to the parties.

Lee grew up in the southwest Alabama town of Monroeville, which she partly used as inspiration for the setting of her classic novel "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "Watchman."

After spending decades mostly in New York, Lee lived the final years of her life at an assisted-living facility not far from the old courthouse that served as a model for the set in the movie version of "Mockingbird."

Lee died on Feb. 19. She was 89. She was buried the next day in a modest, private funeral service attended only by her closest relatives and friends.

While they may not have been able to get near the famous author while she lived, fans left small tributes at her gravesite in the Lee family burial plot beside Monroeville First United Methodist Church.

More than two dozen small pebbles had been placed on the Lee family headstone. A fresh carnation was tucked beside the wilting spray of red and white funeral flowers and someone had drawn hearts and messages in the sandy dirt atop her grave.

"Scout I misses you," was written in the dirt.

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