The issue of estate
planning, especially for Native land owners, has become especially
important due to the disproportionate impact of COVID-19. The CDC
says Native Americans die from COVID-19 at nearly twice the rate
of white people.
Ensuring land stays in
the hands of Native people has become especially important
due to the coronavirus pandemic and the disproportionate impact
COVID-19 has had on Native people. (Lauren Justice - REUTERS)
As statistics show Native Americans dying from COVID-19 at nearly
twice the rate of white people, a Little Canada-based nonprofit
has developed a way for those who own tribal lands to write a do-it-yourself
will, free of charge.
Created by the Minnesota-based Indian Land Tenure Foundation along
with other Indian legal services groups, the organizations
Will-in-a-Box offers an easy way for Native American
landowners in three states Minnesota, Montana and Oklahoma
to ensure their lands stays in the hands of Native people.
The issue has become especially important due to the coronavirus
pandemic and the disproportionate impact COVID-19 has had on Native
people. The CDC says Native Americans die from COVID-19 at 1.8 times
the rate of white people.
But the tool also speaks to the intensely complicated nature of
probate for those who own tribal land. When an Indian territory
landowner dies without a will, the question of who should inherit
their property isnt sent to a state probate court where the
person died, but a federal probate judge, who presides over a Byzantine
and often lengthy process of settling the estate.
A case in federal probate court can take years, said
Cris Stainbrook, president of the Indian Land Tenure Foundation.
The process is a legacy of the Dawes Act, also known as the General
Allotment Act, passed in 1887, which put reservation land in a trust
that the federal government owns, with individual tribes and landowners
holding title to the land. The Allotment Act also put the federal
government in charge of final decisions regarding land use and inheritance.
It was a blanket declaration painting individuals and tribes
as being incompetent to handle their own affairs, said Stainbrook.
In the federal probate courts, a common ruling is one Stainbrook
calls splits. Half of the estate goes to the spouse
and the children get the other half. If you have nine kids,
they would get one-eighteenth of the interest, Stainbrook
said, and the process gets repeated with each successive generation,
so that by the time you get through seven, eight, 10 generations,
that land has been divided into very small pieces.
The smallest Ive seen is one over 32 million,
A will can avoid some of those situations, which is where Stainbrook
and the Indian Land Tenure Foundation come in. The free Will-in-a-Box,
allows a tribal landowner to fill out a series of forms on the ILTFs
website, which are then reviewed by the organizations legal
The documents still have to go to a federal probate judge, who
validates the will, but it speeds up the process. Currently, the
service is available for American Indians who own trust land in
Minnesota, Montana, and Oklahoma, though the ILTF is working on
adding to that list.
ILTF, which offers other services around Indian land recovery and
management, began in 2001 with a $20 million endowment from the
Northwest Area Foundation. ILTF is able to fund the free Will-in-a-Box
program, which launched last year, through similar contributions
from businesses, individuals, Indian nations, and other foundations.
The Native people in Minnesota who often seek their estate planning
services are those on Minnesotas various reservation land,
and adults living in the Twin Cities making arrangements for their
parents. I think, especially for some of those reservations
harder hit (by the pandemic), we really need to rack these up,
said Stainbrook. The only real way we have to do that right
now is with the Will-in-a-Box.
He also urges those who own trust land outside where the Will-in-a-Box
is currently valid to fill out the free form, since people can have
an attorney in their state make adjustments, usually at much lower
costs than starting a will from scratch.
Gustavo covers local and regional government for MinnPost.
Tenure Foundation (ILTF)
The Indian Land Tenure Foundation (ILTF) is a national, community-based
organization serving American Indian nations and people in the recovery
and control of their rightful homelands. We work to promote education,
increase cultural awareness, create economic opportunity, and reform
the legal and administrative systems that prevent Indian people
from owning and controlling reservation lands.