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ILTF receives $100,000 grant from Blandin Foundation for MN Indian Estate Planning

ILTF Receives $100,000 Grant from Blandin Foundation for Minnesota Indian Estate Planning Project

Indian Land Tenure Foundation (ILTF) announced it has received a $100,000 grant from the Blandin Foundation to support the Minnesota Indian Estate Planning Project, a three-year project to provide free community education and estate planning services for tribal members of four Minnesota Indian nations—Bois Forte, Fond du Lac, Leech Lake and Mille Lacs. The Blandin Foundation grant provides support during the first two years of the project.

The Minnesota Indian Estate Planning Project addresses a need for information and legal services for American Indian people who wish to resolve land consolidation issues through estate planning and, more specifically, writing wills. Under federal laws and regulations related to land inheritance in Indian Country, Indian landowners who die without a will have their land title interests divided equally among their heirs—a process called “fractionation”— which dilutes ownership interests in Indian land, removes decision-making authority from individual Indian landowners and cripples economic development in reservation communities.

“Blandin Foundation works for vibrant rural communities,” said Linda Gibeau, grants program officer at Blandin Foundation. “What we’ve learned is that real communities are built on hard work, on commitments, and on belonging – that indelible sense of place that we call home. As more and more Native Americans take steps toward protecting their land assets, they will have greater opportunities, the knowledge to manage their assets and access to information about other income-generating options to gain economic prosperity. We stand shoulder to shoulder with the strong list of partners advancing this work.”

The project addresses generations of fractionated land title on Minnesota reservations by offering workshops on the importance of Indian estate planning and by helping tribal members consolidate their land interests through writing wills.

“It’s encouraging to us that Blandin Foundation and its board of trustees see the value in this work for Indian people and their communities,” said Cris Stainbrook, ILTF president. “These are complicated issues that desperately need to be resolved if Indian people are going to determine their own economic futures. Blandin is a strong advocate for Indian communities in rural Minnesota and we’re glad to have them as a partner on this project.”

ILTF launched the will writing initiative in late 2011 with initial funding for the project ($402,560 over three years) from the Administration for Native Americans (ANA), a program of the Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. ILTF’s primary goal for the three-year project is to draft 500 wills and other estate planning documents that consolidate Indian land ownership.

Participation in the project among tribal members has already far exceeded expectations. So far, 256 estate planning documents have been drafted and another 118 people are on a waiting list to receive services but have not met with an attorney yet. Over 15,000 acres of land have been impacted by the estate planning documents thus far.

“Response to the project has been more than a little overwhelming,” said Heidi Drobnick, a Bois Forte band member and the lead attorney for the project. “People are so grateful for the service and we want to accommodate as many tribal members as we can. If we had the resources and staff, we would have already met our project goal for year three and then some.”

ILTF contracted with the law firm of Swanson, Drobnick & Tousey, P.C, a Woodbury, Minnesota firm founded by three Indian attorneys, to conduct outreach and provide estate planning services for the project. Two law student externs (both from William Mitchell College of Law) have also been hired to assist with the project.

In addition to conducting community workshops, the attorneys hold monthly office hours in communities throughout the four reservations, where they provide intake services for new clients and meet with existing clients whose estate planning documents are already in process. According to Drobnick, it generally takes about three visits and often several months to complete one will.

“Many clients live in remote areas and suffer from both economic poverty and information poverty,” explains Drobnick. “Planning for their passing has been weighing heavily on their minds, but they don’t have the resources to pay for an attorney or even know where to begin. Clients, some of whom are experiencing serious health problems, are put at ease to have their land questions answered and to ensure that the family land is passed on in the manner they desire. If it wasn’t for this program, many clients would not engage in estate planning at all.”

Tribal members of the participating Minnesota bands who would like additional information can visit the project’s Facebook page or contact the law firm at 651-739-9615.


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