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Indian Land Tenure Foundation Launches New Indian Estate Planning Project in Minnesota


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Indian Land Tenure Foundation (ILTF) has launched a new will writing initiative—the Minnesota Indian Estate Planning Project.  The three-year project will provide free community education and estate planning services for tribal members of four Minnesota Indian nations—Bois Forte Band of Chippewa, Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe.

The Minnesota Indian Estate Planning Project will address the loss of economic control Indian people experience as a result of a land ownership system created by the Nelson Act of 1889 (the act that divided Minnesota reservation lands into allotments) and the federal laws regarding inheritance of Indian land title.  In particular, the Project will address problems related to fractionated ownership of Indian land title, also known as “fractionation” which, over several generations, results in a dramatic increase in the number of ownership interests in allotments of Indian land.

For example, the Leech Lake Reservation has 288 allotments. (One allotment, or parcel, is usually 160 acres.)  In the past 120 years, each of those allotments has been inherited generation after generation by multiple heirs.  Today, one parcel on the reservation has an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 undivided interest owners.  Writing a will is one way for Indian landowners to prevent the diminishment of the trust land assets passed on to their heirs.

“This [estate planning] program will help individual Indians and tribal governments more actively and strategically manage their lands,” said Bois Forte Band Chairman Kevin Leecy, who also heads the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council.  “Right now some Indian lands are divided into multiple small parcels, making them difficult to manage effectively.  This program is very much needed to straighten out some long-standing and complicated legal proceedings.”

ILTF received funding for the Project from the Administration for Native Americans (ANA), a program of the Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.  The $402,560 grant will fund the project in Minnesota for three years.  ILTF will contribute $166,378 toward the project in matching funds from other sources.

ILTF has previous experience implementing Indian estate planning and will writing programs. In 2003, ILTF created two of the first non-federal Indian estate planning and willing writing programs in South Dakota and Idaho.  Then in 2005, on the heels of the American Indian Probate Reform Act of 2004 (which created a new nation-wide probate code affecting the transference of trust property when there is no will), the BIA announced it would stop writing and storing wills for Indian people.  Shortly afterwards, ILTF participated in a Department of the Interior (DOI) pilot project to provide estate planning and will writing services for Indian people on a contract basis in select geographic regions.  Even though the pilot project demonstrated the overwhelming success of the approach, DOI chose not to continue funding the effort at the time.

“It’s a good sign that a federal government agency [ANA] is taking another look at this approach to solving these long-standing issues with fractionation and land consolidation,” said Cris Stainbrook, ILTF president.  “We have always believed that will writing is an effective means to prevent further fractionation and to reduce the administrative costs of managing trust lands.  And, this project will provide Indian people who could not afford legal assistance the chance to control and manage their own assets.  We’re excited to bring these services to the Minnesota bands.”

To implement the Minnesota Indian Estate Planning Project, ILTF has contracted with the law firm of Swanson, Drobnick and Tousey, P.C. If you are a tribal member of one of the participating bands and would like some addtional information, please contact the law firm at 651-739-9615.

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