SEATTLE -- A new program at the Seattle University School of Law will help
ensure that American Indians receive needed legal services to help preserve
The Institute for Indian Estate Planning and Probate has a three-fold
mission: to assist Indian people in making informed decisions about their
property by providing free and reduced-cost estate planning services to
individuals; provide estate planning and probate training to tribes,
government officials and the legal community; and 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 BIA would no longer be drafting or storing wills for
"That's the void we're trying to help fill," said Douglas Nash, director of
the institute, a Nez Perce Tribe member and an attorney with more than 30
years of 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 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 SUSL.
Dean Kellye Testy said the institute will help SUSL 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