Earlier this year, attorneys representing author Harper Lee filed a lawsuit in a Manhattan court alleging that she has been the victim of financial elder abuse at the hands of her former literary agent. Lee is the Pulitzer Prize winning novelist who published “To Kill a Mockingbird” in 1960. The book became an immediate bestseller, eventually selling more than 30 million copies. It went on to be made into a film in 1962, one that starred Gregory Peck as southern attorney Atticus Finch.
The lawsuit alleges that Samuel Pinkus, Lee’s former literary agent, used his position to get Lee to sign documents that transferred her copyrights in the work over to him in 2007. According to Publisher’s Weekly, “Mockingbird” sells nearly 750,000 copies a year, meaning that Pinkus was able to receive nearly $1.5 million in royalties every year.
Lee, who is currently 87, has been in declining health for years. At the time she signed the papers that transfer her copyrights to Pinkus, she was living in assisted living center in Monroeville, Alabama, a center in which she still resides today. She signed the documents shortly after suffering a stroke, and her infirmities have left her mostly deaf and blind, as well as wheelchair-bound. The lawsuit alleges that at the time of signing the documents, Lee was unaware of what she was signing and is unable to recall actually doing so.
Rising Numbers of Abuse
The unfortunate situation surrounding Ms. Lee is also unfortunately common. Pinkus became Lee’s literary agent because he is the son-in-law of Eugene Winick, a close personal friend of Lee. It’s very common for seniors to suffer elder abuse at the hands of a friend, family member, or even a spouse. In fact, according to numbers released by the National Center on Elder abuse, Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2010 nearly 6,000,000 seniors were the victims of some kind of elder abuse. Of that number, about 66% suffered abuse at the hands of an adult child or a spouse.
The statistics also reveal that financial exploitation is present in about 12% of all the elder abuse cases reported each year. A MetLife Mature Market Institute study from 2009 showed that the total amount lost to financial abuse could be at least $2.6 billion every year. However, no one is really sure of the exact extent of the losses because so many cases of financial elder abuse go unreported.
Elder abuse is so often devastating because many elderly people choose to keep it to themselves and not seek out help. It can be very embarrassing for an elderly person to admit that they’ve been victimized.
If you have been victimized or want to be cautious and protect yourself from the possibility, speaking to an elder law attorney is always something you can do in confidence. Call an attorney today if you believe you need help and don’t know where to turn.