Native land wills even more important during pandemic

BY D. SEAN ROWLEY
Senior Reporter
12/27/2020 10:00 AM
Main Cherokee Phoenix
Those wishing to get started making out a Native landowner will can download a planning and preparation checklist from the Indian Land Tenure Foundation at iltf.org. COURTESY
OKLAHOMA CITY – With the COVID-19 pandemic reaching record incidence in the U.S., many families are losing loved ones suddenly.

One effect among Native Americans has been instances of land ownership being left in legal limbo due to an unexpected death and no will.

The Indian Land Tenure Foundation wants Native landowners to consider making out their wills.

“It has never been more important for Indian landowners to have a will,” the ILTF stated in a release. “That fact has been driven home by the premature death of so many people in tribal communities, including several who were in the process of writing their wills with assistance from the American Indian Wills Clinic at Oklahoma City University School of Law.”

Cherokee Nation citizen Casey Ross serves as director for the American Indian Law and Sovereignty Center at OCU. The clinic was meant to offer estate planning services to Native Americans residing in Oklahoma who own an interest in trust or restricted allotment lands.

“Our clinic slated several clients for services in the Spring 2020 semester, but due to the pandemic, services were interrupted by closures and restrictions on travel,” Ross said. “During our hiatus, four of our clients passed away prior to completing their wills, some passing from complications of COVID-19.”

The clinic, supported in part by the ILTF and Oklahoma Bar Foundation, worked to resume providing services in a new way. Adhering to a strict safety regime, the clinic instituted drive-thru services for the execution of wills by Native landowners. Clinic staff provided services at three locations in Oklahoma where clients could sign and submit the necessary legal papers to execute wills without having to leave their vehicles.

“We resumed services as soon as restrictions were lifted, and put into place protocols designed to keep clients, students and staff safe,” Ross said. “Our ‘drive-through’ services have been appreciated and embraced. Since resuming services, we have experienced higher demand, and 100% of our scheduled clients have shown up for a service date in rural tribal communities. Folks are focused on taking care of this important task during this uncertain time.”

However, the pandemic is now more intense in Oklahoma, and there were no clinics planned in the short term.

“There are no other wills clinics scheduled at the moment, but once tribal communities begin to reopen to outsiders we will be doing outreach and providing more opportunities for individuals to get help with their estate planning in Oklahoma and elsewhere,” said Jim Wabindato, ILTF program and development officer. “It’s crucial for landowners to write wills, and ILTF is doing everything we can to help facilitate that in Indian Country.”

ILTF states that if Indian landowners die without a will, a federal probate judge could take years determining who will inherit the land.

One service offered by ILTF is “Will in a Box.” However, CN citizens can’t use it to create a legally binding will.

“Unfortunately, because of the Stigler Act of 1947, members of Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole (nations) can’t use Will in a Box to submit their finished will,” Wabindato said. “The same is true for Osage landowners. What they can do, though, is use it as a free tool to organize their affairs and develop a draft before meeting with a knowledgeable attorney who can help them execute the will.”

Visit the ILTF and access Will in a Box at iltf.org.
About the Author
Sean Rowley was hired by the Cherokee Phoenix at the beginning of 2019. Sean was born a long time ago in Tulsa, where he grew up and attended Booker T. Washington High School as a freshman before moving to Pawnee County and graduating from Cleveland High School in 1987. 

He graduated sans honors from Northeastern State University in 1992 with a bachelor of arts in mass communication with emphases in advertising and public relati ...
david-rowley@cherokee.org • 918-453-5560
Sean Rowley was hired by the Cherokee Phoenix at the beginning of 2019. Sean was born a long time ago in Tulsa, where he grew up and attended Booker T. Washington High School as a freshman before moving to Pawnee County and graduating from Cleveland High School in 1987. He graduated sans honors from Northeastern State University in 1992 with a bachelor of arts in mass communication with emphases in advertising and public relati ...

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