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TCL > July 2013 Issue > The Tribal Wills Project at DU Law

July 2013       Vol. 42, No. 7       Page  29
In and Around the Bar
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The Tribal Wills Project at DU Law
by Lucy Marsh

About the Author

Lucy Marsh been teaching law at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law for forty years. She teaches Trusts and Estates, Property, and Civil Procedure Law, and runs the Wills Lab, which she created approximately twenty-five years ago—

Photo credits: W. Plenty Holes/Weenuche Smoke Signals

With help from friends at the Colorado Supreme Court, the Governor’s Office, the Department of the Interior, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, and the Southern Ute Tribe, law students from the University of Denver Sturm College of Law (DU Law) recently left the classroom behind and headed to the Four Corners area to provide pro bono legal assistance on the reservations. It all began with a letter from John Roach, Fiduciary Trust Officer for the Southwest Region of the Department of the Interior. Students at DU Law and I responded.

2013 Tribal Wills Project participants (front row, left to right): Sheena Goldsborough, Kate Puckett, Colin Fletcher; (back row, left to right): Sarah Barth, Jimmy Woulfe, Joseph Risch, Prof. Lucy Marsh, Kate Bartell-Nowak, Justen Hansen, Stephanie Maas, Ansley Shewmaker, and Tammy Kelley.

Because of recent federal legislation, tribal members now have more need for wills than any other group in the country. The American Indian Probate Reform Act (AIPRA)1 provides that, in many cases, the property of tribal members who do not have wills in place will descend in a form of primogeniture—that is, everything will go to the one oldest child, the one oldest grandchild, or the one oldest great-grandchild. It is quite possible that nothing will go to the surviving spouse.

As a result, wills are a necessity. There are two major problems with this. First, there are almost no lawyers available to help tribal members write wills. Second, there is a strong cultural taboo among tribal members against writing wills or even speaking of death. So, the Tribal Wills Project needed the assistance of many people.

Council Chambers at Ute Mountain Justice Center. Standing, from left: Joey Risch, Jimmy Woulfe, Justen Hanse, Sheena Goldsborough; seated: Sarah Barth, Prof. Lucy Marsh.

From Wills Lab to Tribal Wills

The Tribal Wills Project started off as an extension of the Wills Lab, which I have run for more than twenty-five years at DU Law. Student participants of the Wills Lab write wills and related documents for low-income people in the Denver area. Each student works under the direct supervision of one member of a group of excellent volunteer attorneys.

The Tribal Wills Project turned out to be a great deal more difficult than the Wills Lab. This primarily was due to (1) the complexity of the federal law itself; (2) tribal customs discouraging the writing of wills; and (3) the physical distance between Denver and the Four Corners area, which is where Colorado’s only two reservations—the Ute Mountain Ute and the Southern Ute Reservations—are located.

I called for help from the experts. Colorado Supreme Justice Greg Hobbs agreed to help, and put me in touch with Ernest House, Jr., who is the Executive Secretary of the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs and a member of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. Jon Asher, Director of Colorado Legal Services, offered lots of good advice, and put me in touch with Steve Moore of the Native American Rights Fund, who in turn put me in touch with attorney David Armstrong, Director of the Indian Law Office for Wisconsin Judicare, Inc. in Wausau, Wisconsin. David has been running a program similar to the Tribal Wills Project for three years, for students who come out to Wisconsin from Columbia Law School.

John Roach flew up from Farmington, New Mexico for an all-day brainstorming session on creating a program related to writing tribal wills. Ernest House and John Roach contacted the tribal leaders on both reservations. Dianne Van Voorhees, Director of Metro Volunteer Lawyers, and Lindsey Webb, pro bono co-coordinator at DU Law, shared their expertise, and we got the program started. It was a remarkable success

Student Sheena Goldsborough, with client Waylon Plenty Holes.   Prof. Lucy Marsh and Colin Fletcher assist client (seated) at will signing.
Left to right: Stephanie Maas; Bradley W. Hight, Vice Chair, Ute Mountain Tribal Council; and Prof. Lucy Marsh.   Student Kate Puckett assists a client.

Training Commences

During the weeks before the students and I traveled to the reservations, we had four intensive training sessions. John Roach and Ernest House gave a joint presentation in which John covered the details of the AIPRA and Ernest told us about important traditions of the Tribes. Justice Hobbs and his law clerk, Daniel Cordalis, a member of the Navajo Tribe, taught us about the history of tribes in Colorado—a lecture for which attorneys received CLE credit. David Armstrong flew out from Wisconsin and gave a day-long session for students and attorneys on drafting wills for tribal members. Then, Jon Asher and Dianne Van Voorhees gave us practical advice before we set off for the Four Corners.

A bit of time out (left to right): Stephanie Maas, Colin Fletcher, Kate Puckett, Sarah Barth, and Justen Hansen.

Putting the Plan Into Action

Both tribes generously donated rooms for the students in their respective casino hotels. DU hosted a dinner Sunday night on the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation, at which tribal leaders welcomed and addressed the students.

At 9:00 on Monday morning, we began working with clients to draft appropriate wills. Although it had been predicted that we might get no more than one or two clients during the week, it turned out that we completed a total of sixty-six wills during our one week in the Four Corners area. We also brought back a few particularly complex wills to the school to be completed later.

On the last two days of the project, recent DU graduate, Paul Padilla, provided excellent assistance. Paul gave up two days of his law practice in Durango to help students with their will-drafting. He also helped to check every word of every document beforehand, making sure that it was properly executed by the client.

The students did manage to get in a bit of vacation activity during the week. On the morning we moved from the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation to the Southern Ute Reservation, we stopped for a brief tour of Mesa Verde, lead by one of the students, Joseph Risch, who had worked at the national park during previous summers.

By the end of the week, a remarkable group of young students had successfully been brought into the fellowship of those who do pro bono service for the community. We have high hopes that the Tribal Wills Project, having now taken root, will grow robustly. Anyone interested in helping this program to expand is invited to send an e-mail to Prof. Lucy Marsh at

A visit to Mesa Verde National Park (left to right): Kate Bartell-Nowak, Joey Risch, Sheena Goldsborough, Tammy Kelley, and Ansley Shewmaker.


1. The American Indian Probate Reform Act, Pub. L. No. 108-374, became effective for probate matters in 2006.

Bring Our Young People In!

We’re on the verge of Spring,
Bring our young people in!

Throw open the schoolhouse doors,
Let the Four Corners shine on them!

Light of Hogan doors opening East,
Light of the Pine and Mancos Utes

Light of the San Luis People’s Ditch
About to gurgle a Sangre de Cristo.

Hang out the welcome sign of a good snowfall,
Adorn the frame of each of their dwellings

Mind and heart, meek and wild,
grand and challenging.

Front to back ranges, spine of the Continent
North to south ranges, pack them well,

Pack them on our backs if we must!
And when their limbs are strong enough

Will them on their way, there’s nothing
We can do that isn’t given us to do

To help them along, that isn’t given us
To do, to help them along.

—Greg Hobbs, 03/09/2013

Poem printed here with
permission of the author.

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