Wills Project Offers Increased Services for American Indian Elders

Rural Montana – In just ten months, more than 50 American Indian clients have been helped by the Wills for American Indian Project at Montana Legal Services Association (MLSA). These 50 people have been empowered to assert their rights as trust land owners, deciding for themselves how their trust land is passed on.

In 2018, the Steele-Reese Foundation awarded $25,000 to fund MLSA’s Wills for American Indians Project. Because reservation land is held in trust by the Federal Government, wills are essential to preserving the rights of American Indian trust land owners. Without a will, a person’s trust property will be transferred to someone whom the federal government selects, in a process that can take many years.

The Wills for American Indians Project works to draft wills for American Indian Elders on Montana’s seven rural reservations, helping to protect the rights of American Indian trust land owners. The Steele-Reese Foundation’s support of the Wills for American Indians Project means that more American Indian Elders can pass their trust land to their heir of choice.

Nationwide, the Department of Interior estimates that 93% of Indian trust landowners do not have a will. A 2014 assessment of civil legal aid in Montana similarly found that estate planning services for trust land issues are a significant need for American Indian Elders. Few private attorneys practice on Montana’s seven Indian reservations. Even if a private lawyer could be found, many American Indians cannot afford lawyer fees, especially those living on reservations, where poverty rates reach an average of more than 30%. The Wills for American Indians Project helps meet the needs of American Indian Elders by providing wills free of charge on Montana’s reservations.

The Steele-Reese Foundation is a charitable Trust committed to supporting rural communities in Idaho, Montana, and Kentucky, including communities on American Indian reservations. With a focus on rural human and social services, the Steele-Reese Foundation provides funding to nonprofit organizations that support low-income and under-represented populations in order to improve individuals’ lives and strengthen their communities.

The Wills for American Indians Project is just one way that MLSA provides equal justice to all Montanans. Civil legal aid from MLSA assures fairness for all in the justice system, regardless of how much money a person has, and helps Montanans protect their livelihoods, their health, and their families.