Willing to Help with Wills: Students Go to Wisconsin to Assist Native Americans with their Estates

Efforts a Break from the Typical Warm-Weather Venues for Spring Break Caravan Students

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New York, April 13, 2011—A group of Columbia Law School students recently proved that where there is a will there is indeed a way to help people write their wills.
As part of the Spring Break Caravan run by the Social Justice Initiatives program, 10 students traveled to Indian reservations in Wisconsin last month to help members of four different tribes draw up wills and other estate documents.
“I think people expected to enjoy it and expected it to be useful,” said Shawn Watts ’12, president of the Law School’s Native American Law Students Association. “We didn’t expect to have as good a time as we had.”
The students worked with Wisconsin Judicare, a legal services organization in northern Wisconsin that also covers the 11 federally recognized tribes in the state.
“They did great. We were incredibly impressed with them,” said David Armstrong, a lawyer at Wisconsin Judicare, who said the students helped complete 68 wills, 15 powers of attorney and half a dozen advanced directive documents. “That’s typically about what our office does in a year.”
This was the first time caravan students traveled to Wisconsin where, after a day of training, the students spent one day each on a different reservation. “Most of them needed some help with the first will, but after that they were good to go,” Armstrong said.
Watts expects the program to return next spring and hopefully provide advance training so students can work on wills all five days.
“We can only write as many wills as people that come to us. We’ve been talking about all kinds of changes we can institute to ensure we reach as many people as possible,” said Watts, who was recently also named president of the National Native American Law Students Association. Four other Law School students have also assumed leadership roles in the group.
One reason wills are especially important on the reservations is that original land grants are often divided into smaller parcels for succeeding generations. But a federal law that took effect in 2004 can complicate that process.
“There’s a federal Indian probate law that places restrictions on who you can will property too and sets threshold levels for how small a percentage you can own,” Armstrong said. “It can set up a process where if you don’t have a will, the Bureau of Indian Affairs will actually do a forced sale of the land and give the tribe a chance to buy it, rather than passing it on to your heirs.”
Watts said: “I think not as many people realized that could happen.”
At least double the number of students the caravan was able to accommodate in Wisconsin vied to be in the program. The Law School’s Public Interest Law Foundation will provide funding for the Wisconsin program next year. Watts said a similar initiative may be offered on the Navajo reservation in New Mexico and Arizona next year.
Funding for Spring Break Caravans, which offers eligible students a stipend to cover the cost of travel and accommodations, was provided by Simpson, Thacher & Bartlett and Weil, Gotshal & Manges.
The caravans are designed, in part, to help students fulfill a requirement of 40 hours of pro bono work before they graduate.
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