Relatives, Little House on the Prairie and Probate

We haven’t talked about relatives in awhile. That hit home seeing some write-ups of the recent release of the biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the author of the Little House on the Prairies books – you know, the books the TV series was based on. Not exactly an article that would normally make one think of probate law. But, then, not much about Laura Ingalls Wilder and her story is ‘normal.’

Laura Ingalls Wilder started writing the books late in life and only in desperation in an attempt to earn money after the 1929 Crash wiped out the family finances. She was 62 at the time and originally wrote the books for adults. Only after many rejections did she convert them to children’s books. She wrote with her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, she wrote the manuscripts, Rose edited, subtracted, added and polished.

The first Little House book was released in 1932 and was an immediate critical and financial success. By the 1950’s the Little House books were staples in schools, libraries, and millions of households. They were never out of print. They were translated into dozens of languages.

The money poured in … and Rose spent, even while she carved out her own literary niche as the writer of highly successful while factually dubious unauthorized biographies.

Just before her death in 1957, Laura Ingalls Wilder made a will. She had recently funded the purchase of the family farm in Missouri to set up a museum and library. Laura left her literary works and income to Rose for the rest of her life and then to the museum. Rose was 61 at the time and childless, so it all seemed simple.

Rose had no children, but she had a lot of friends. She was particularly close to her editors and for a time lived near them in Connecticut. There she had taken a particular liking to their son, one Roger Lea MacBride, age 14. She became his mentor, stayed in close touch while he attended Princeton and Harvard Law School, considered him her protege after graduation.

She always referred to him as her ‘adopted grandson’ a sentiment he echoed. Consistently, for years. When Rose died her will left her mother’s intellectual property to, you guessed it, her grandson Roger. He was 40 at the time. He had the copyrights for the Little House books transferred to his name (there’s no indication that he knew about Laura’s will). Three years later, he helped bring the series to TV. He also added several books to the series and started a spin-off.

The library struggled along for years. They received one royalty payment somewhere along the line, assumed that at Roger’s death the copyrights would finally revert to them. He died in 1995, his will left all the intellectual property to his family. The library sued, an out of court settlement was reached.

It all goes to show, I suppose, that it’s vital to clearly establish who the ‘relatives’ are at the start of the probate process. Had the museum/library done so in 1967 a lot of things may have been very different.