Indian Estate Planning Institute opens at Seattle University School of Law

A new program at Seattle University School of Law will help ensure that Native Americans receive needed legal services to help preserve their lands.

The Institute for Indian Estate Planning & Probate has a three-fold mission. First, it will assist Indian people in making informed decisions about their property by providing free and reduced-cost estate planning services to individuals. Second, it will provide estate planning and probate training to tribes, government officials and the legal community. Third, it will serve as a clearinghouse for Indian estate planning information.

The Institute is a project of the Indian Land Tenure Foundation, a nonprofit corporation that recognized the need for a unified, comprehensive and efficient approach to estate planning in Indian Country. Estate planning gives Indian land owners the ability to reconsolidate and manage their land. The need is particularly pressing given the passage of the American Indian Probate Reform Act in November 2004 and the announcement in April 2005 that the Bureau of Indian Affairs would no longer be drafting or storing wills for tribal members.

“That’s the void we’re trying to help fill,” said Douglas Nash, Director of the Institute, a member of Nez Perce Tribe and an attorney with more than 30 years experience working with Indian law issues. “Our objective is to grow into a national program that directly impacts and reduces the fractionation of Indian lands through education and the provision of estate planning services to tribal members and communities.”

With the General Allotment Act of 1887, tribal lands were allotted to individual tribal members on more than 100 reservations. Those lands were held in trust by the United States for tribal members, meaning that the United States holds legal title to the land. Between 1887 and 1934, when the allotment policy was repudiated, more than 90 million acres of land were lost to Indian ownership.

Of those lands remaining in Indian ownership, the majority of the original 80- to 160-acre parcels are held today by dozens or even hundreds of interest holders because federal law required that ownership pass according to state laws of intestate succession. Each owner of an undivided interest needs permission from the others and from the United States in order to lease, manage, encumber or improve the land.

The Institute oversees existing ILTF projects that provide free or reduced cost Indian estate planning services to Tribes in the States of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin. One of those is the Estate Planning Project at the University of Idaho, which sends eight law students from around the country into reservation communities in Washington, Oregon and Idaho, where most members have limited access to legal services.

The externs provide free estate planning and will drafting services under the supervision of a licensed attorney. The Institute is working in partnership with SU clinical and externship programs to create a similar program at SUSL in 2006-07, said Cecelia Burke, deputy director of the Institute and a graduate of SUSL who was an extern under the UI program.

The Institute was recently awarded a $519,000 one-year contract from the Department of the Interior to develop and implement an estate planning pilot project in the Great Plains and Pacific Coast regions. The pilot project will send legal services attorneys and paralegals to reservations in each region.

Because the American Indian Probate Reform Act is recent and complicated, attorneys, tribal members and tribal officials need to have a clear understanding of its provisions and effects, Nash said. Training is another important part of the Institute’s work. The Institute will be hosting a two-day national symposium and continuing legal education program on the American Indian Probate Reform Act on March 14 and 15 at Seattle University School of Law.

Dean Kellye Testy said the Institute will help Seattle University School of Law advance its mission of training outstanding lawyers for the service of justice.
“This institute is critical to ensuring Native Americans have access to legal services they need,” Testy said. “We look forward to being at the heart of service to tribal communities nationwide.”

For more information contact Cecelia Burke at (206) 398.4277 or burkec@seattleu.edu, or see the Indian Institute Web page.