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Probate reform bill heads to Senate for vote
Thursday, January 29, 2004

The chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee on Wednesday said he expects quick passage of a bill that seeks to reform one aspect of the Indian trust.

After several iterations, the American Indian Probate Reform Act of 2004 was finally cleared for a vote on the Senate floor. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.), the sponsor of S.1721, said the bill was "truly a cooperative effort" between Indian Country and the federal government.

"I hope we can continue to work together on other aspects of trust reform," Campbell said at a brief business committee meeting yesterday morning when the bill was approved without dissent.

S.1721 represents more than a year's worth of work on a proposal that was heavily criticized when it first came up for discussion. Back in May 2002, tribal leaders said it failed to resolve a critical issue: whether lineal descendants, or Indians who are not tribal members, can inherit land.

The revision that followed didn't fare any better. Working with some tribal attorneys, Senate staff developed a new status of land ownership called "passive trust" to address the lineal descendant issue.

But since the concept diminished the federal government's trust responsibility, several national Indian organizations and tribes found it less than appealing.

So by the time the bill made it back to the committee in May 2003, there was plenty to complain about. This time, though, the Bush administration joined the chorus of critics against passive trust.

"My morning started out pretty good until I came here," Campbell said after the barrage.

The situation started to look brighter after Campbell brought together a number of organizations, including the National Congress of American Indians and the Indian Land Working Group, and the Department of Interior to revise S.1721 another time. What emerged in October 2003 was a bill that tribes said was a major improvement.

The version that passed yesterday follows a draft that Campbell's staff circulated last week. There are a number of important changes, notably, the clarification of the definition of "Indian" to include lineal descendants and close family members, and provisions to allow individual Indians, tribes and the federal government to consolidate land parcels with multiple owners.

At its core, the bill creates a uniform probate standard for Indian Country. Currently, Indian landowners are subject to 33 different state laws, making estate planning difficult if not impossible.

To help change that, the bill authorizes grants to help Indian landowners develop wills. Tribes and legal aid groups, including non-profits, would be eligible for the grants.

The success of the consolidation provisions in the bill depend largely on the dollar amount the federal government is willing to commit to reducing fractionation. Campbell said yesterday he hopes the Bush administration will take positive steps in the 2005 budget, which is being released next week. Senate staff have been suggesting $70 million over the next five years.

A BIA official once told Campbell it would take billions to buy back all the fractionated interests. The figure was backed by independent observers.

Currently, S.1721 does not have a counterpart in the House. Campbell said he expects the House to act sometime this year.

Get the Bill:
S.1721 [Note: As introduced. A substitute amendment was adopted yesterday but is not yet available via Thomas.] | S.1721 Draft (January 2004)

Relevant Documents:
Witness List (October 15, 2003)

Relevant Links:
Trust Reform, NCAI - http://www.ncai.org/main/pages/
issues/other_issues/trust_reform.asp

Office of Special Trustee - http://www.ost.doi.gov
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton - http://www.indiantrust.com

Related Stories:
Tribes back improvements in probate reform bill (10/16)
Panel debating reform bill a third time (10/15)
Senate panel to hold hearing on probate bill (10/14)
Tribes focus energies on 'core' trust reform issues (05/30)
On fractionation, little progress in decades (05/09)
Indian land bill draws complaints from all sides (05/08)
Congress tackles trust land reform bill (5/6)
Bush land program called inadequate (5/6)
Accounting of trust land pushed (5/6)
Judge upholds ongoing trust relationship (04/29)
Bush administration turns to Congress on trust (04/04)
Appropriators question historical accounting plan (03/13)
From BIA to BITAM to OST, Swimmer lands on top (01/16)
Passive trust faces test in new Congress (11/25)
Senate approves omnibus Indian package (11/21)
Bill offers 'extinguishment' of trust fund claims (11/06)
Legislation to create a 'passive' Indian trust (10/18)
Take a pass on passive Indian trust (10/18)
Trust reform legislation sidetracked (10/17)
Tribes enter 'new phase' in trust reform battle (10/03)
Sparks fly at trust reform meeting (9/27)
Here comes BITAM all over again (9/27)
Bush proposal to take 'unclaimed' Indian land (09/26)
Rift widens on trust reform negotiations (9/12)
Tribes scrap talks on trust standards (9/11)
Tribal leaders debate trust reform bill (05/23)
Interior considering a limited trust fund (3/15)

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