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Probate process could improve for Indian country

WASHINGTON - A probate reform bill proposes one quick fix and other long-term measures to end the fractionation of Indian land, which proceeds in part from delays in probating Indian estates.

The quick fix is one of the unintended consequences of the Indian Land Consolidation Act of 2000 - by narrowing the definition of Indian, the ILCA sparked a continuing epidemic of concern in Indian country that Indian heirs may not be able to inherit property under the law's limited definition of an Indian. In response, many Native property holders have moved to convert land from trust status to fee simple status. Fee simple property is heritable without reference to definition, but the transfers threaten the land base of some tribes, according to testimony before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Oct. 15.

The bill also aims to implement long-term fixes to fractionation, based on the recommendations of many tribes and organizations. Fractionation, the division of small ownership interests among many heirs, comes about when property holders die without leaving a will. Other long-term reforms will address the probate process directly.

The Interior Department suggested S. 550 may constitute a last chance to fix the fractionation problem, and provided numbers showing the sheer economic folly of maintaining so many accounts that cost far more to manage than the single accounts will ever hold.

The American Indian Probate Reform Act of 2003, S. 550 for short, can be accessed on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee Web site, http://indian.senate.gov. Click on Legislation at left of the splash page and scroll down to S. 550 in numerical order.