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DIY Estate Planning Essential for MT Tribal Members


Monday, August 2, 2021   

HELENA, Mont. - COVID-19 is underscoring the importance of ensuring that people's estates are in order, but estate planning can be be tricky for tribal members. That's why Montana Legal Services Association and the Indian Land Tenure Foundation have partnered to develop a do-it-yourself online form.

Many tribal members own land through a trust in which the legal title is held by the U.S. government.

But Kathryn Seaton - the tribal law practice group staff attorney with Montana Legal Services Association who heads the Indian Wills program - said over time, owners of these trust lands have grown into hundreds or thousands, making it hard to use the land.

She said the problem is that when people die without a will, the land is split evenly among heirs.

"It's important for tribal members to have wills," said Seaton, "so they can determine what happens with their tribal trust land and to ensure that it's going to go to who they want it to go to and to not continue to fractionate interests into smaller and smaller portions."

The "Indian Will-in-a-Box" is a free online form to help Native Americans draft their wills and determine what will happen to their estates.

Seaton said the program has come out at the perfect time, since services have moved online over the past year to prevent the spread of COVID-19. She said the form gives helpful information as folks fill it out.

"The form itself also provides little help pop-ups that give definitions so people can just go through, answer all the questions, review all of the information that's contained in the form and then get their document at the end," said Seaton. "It will create the document for them."

Seaton said remote services are hard to provide in tribal communities.

"There can be a lack of access to just simply broadband service or internet service or even phone service," said Seaton. "Access to computers, access to smartphones, etc. So that's always a barrier."

She said her organization is considering ways to bring internet access to these communities.

Seaton added that it's been hard to get documents remotely notarized because people often need a credit history for these services.

Montana Legal Services Association is a nonprofit that provides civil legal aid to low-income folks.

Disclosure: Montana Legal Services Association contributes to our fund for reporting on Civil Rights, Human Rights/Racial Justice, Poverty Issues, Social Justice. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.

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