Indian Wills – Planning for the Inevitable
By Mike Godbe, CILS Bishop office Staff Attorney
It is often said, “nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Because taxation in Indian Country is often uncertain (e.g., sales and use tax, property tax, etc.), this leaves death as the only certainty for Native Americans.
Death: the only certainty!
Well, now that I’ve got you feeling upbeat about how we’ll all be kicking the bucket someday, it’s a great time to remember that it’s never too early to start end-of-life planning!
For Native Americans who own an interest in an allotment or have money from their allotment in an Individual Indian Money (IIM) Accounts (referred to “trust assets”), there is a special set of probate rules for giving (“devising”) these assets by will.
Making a Valid Indian Will
While under state law a handwritten will with no witnesses, or a type-written will with two witnesses, may be valid, this state rule is not valid for leaving your trust assets to a relative or loved one. You must execute a will (“Indian Will”) that meets the requirements found in Title 25 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Subpart A (25 CFR §§15.1 – 15.12) to transfer trust assets. Some of these requirements are that, in addition to having 2 disinterested witnesses, the testator and witnesses must all sign Affidavits with specific language in the presence of “an officer authorized to administer oaths,” such as a notary, and contain specific language.
CILS Attorneys and Advocates have many years of experience assisting clients in drafting valid Indian Wills for their trust assets.
A Valid Indian Will can also Satisfy California Law (Combined Will)
A valid Indian Will can meet the less-stringent requirements for a valid will under California law (i.e for transferring personal property and non-trust land). (see Probate Code § 6110-6113). This means that you don’t need two wills– one for your trust and one for your non-trust assets—- as long as the more stringent requirements for Indian Wills are met.
Wills are also an appropriate place to record any specific wishes you may have following your passing. For example, whether you would like to be buried or cremated, where your ashes should be spread, whether you want a traditional burial ceremony, if your body should be left undisturbed for a certain period of time, and anything that requires the consent of your next of kin such as an autopsy. These can be hard conversations for families to have and CILS Attorneys and Advocates can help you navigate these challenging considerations.
What Happens to my Trust Assets if I Die Without Making a Valid Will?
If you die without a will, your trust assets will pass according to the rules set out in the American Indian Probate Reform Act of 2004 (AIPRA). AIPRA creates specific rules for succession (transferring) of trust assets, which differ depending on whether the individual who died intestate (without a will) owns greater or less than 5% interest in the allotment being probated.
Before AIPRA was enacted, if there was no will, Indian trust assets would be distributed by following state law. As a result, throughout the country there was wide variation in how trust assets would be distributed among the heirs of deceased allottees. This of course is the legacy of the Allotment period (1877-1934) that resulted in severe fractionation of Indian trust lands. It is not unusual for Indian allotments to have hundreds of living interest holders sharing the land as tenants in common, with each only owning a fraction of one percent. A primary goal of AIPRA was to reduce – or at least lessen – this fractionation.
The AIPRA does not apply if a Tribe has its own Probate Code that has been approved by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
CILS Is Here to Help
If you have more questions or are ready to move forward and make an Indian Will, don’t hesitate to contact your local CILS office.
For additional resources, check out the Trust Assets and Probate section of CILS’ Self-Help resources, where you can find AIPRA resources and helpful guides.
 This section of the Code of Federal Regulations does not apply to members of the Osage Nation and the “Five Civilized Tribes” of Oklahoma.
 If your tribe has its own probate code that has been approved by the Secretary of the Interior, then the tribe’s probate code, not AIPRA, applies.