Probate of a Salesman

Willy Loman’s story resolves most of the conflicts between the characters.

SPOILERS AHEAD. (But seriously, this play premiered in 1949…you should know what happened by now)

What the play didn’t touch on would probably put the original story to shame. A tale of drama, death, INTRIGUE! That story is…probate. Maybe Biff runs off with the assets. Perhaps Linda remarries and leaves everything to her new spouse. What if Uncle Ben created a Trust but left someone out of his diamond fortune??? SO MANY POSSIBILITIES.

Probates can get messy very quickly. Even famed playwright Arthur Miller’s estate is whirlwind of emotions and drama…much like his play.

The crux of this drama revolves around more than 160 boxes of Miller’s manuscripts and writings. The battle pits Yale University vs. the University of Texas. The loot:

The Miller archive, comprising 322 linear feet of material, is certainly a rich one. It documents the whole of his public career, including the development of classic plays like “Death of a Salesman” and “The Crucible” and his showdown with the House Un-American Activities Committee and advocacy against censorship around the world.

There is also intensely personal material, including early family letters and drafts of an essay about the death of Marilyn Monroe, Miller’s second wife, begun the day of her funeral and revised over many years but never published. But the richest vein may be the journals, which span more than 70 years, often mixing fragments of works in progress with intimately diaristic reflections.

Miller began his relationship with the Ransom Center in the early 1960s. Short on funds and facing a large tax bill, Miller donated 13 boxes of material, including manuscripts and working notebooks for the plays that made his name — including “Death of a Salesman,” “All My Sons” and “The Crucible” — in exchange for a tax deduction. (You can do this too…by contacting our firm).

In 1983, after a fire damaged Miller’s house in Roxbury, Conn., he shipped another 73 boxes to Texas for safekeeping. In a letter held at the Ransom Center, he said he’d like to eventually formalize the transfer either by sale, or by donation should the tax deduction (which had been eliminated in the early 1970s) be restored.

“I am in full agreement with your suggestion that I give them absolute first refusal in whatever decision I make for the disposition of the archive,” he wrote to the Manhattan bookseller Andreas Brown, who was serving as his archival consultant.

PAUSE. This is the point where a good estate planning attorney would step in and create a valid estate plan leaving the manuscripts to the Ransom Center with a right of first refusal. This right would exists in the Last Will and Testament of Arthur Miller and should also exist in any other planning documents involved with the gift. Sadly, this did not happen.

In January 2005, a few weeks before his death at the age of 89, Miller shipped 89 more boxes to the Ransom Center, whose extensive American theater holdings also include the papers of Tennessee Williams, Lillian Hellman and Stella Adler.

In the summer of 2015, three staff members from Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library visited the Ransom Center to inspect the Miller collection. Yale then made an offer of $2.7 million for the materials on deposit, plus some 70 boxes still held by the estate.

The Ransom Center matched the price, but refused to go higher, citing Miller’s 1983 letter as providing them a right of first refusal.

So now, the heirs of the estate of Arthur Miller are in a quandary. Clearly, the works are worth more than $2.7million, but why would either side increase their offer?

Ultimately, the Ransom Center won and purchased the works from the Estate for $2.7million. The Court relied upon the letter from Miller as sufficient proof that a right of first refusal existed. Who knows how much Yale would have offered???

h/t to the New York Times for this great article.

Plan your Estate with us now. Become a famous playwright later.

For more articles like this, sign up for our newsletter.

817.638.9016 or


Posted in Legal Tips Today - Travis Weaver and tagged , , , , , , .