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TCL > July 2014 Issue > Lawyers Rally to Support Tribal Wills Project

July 2014       Vol. 43, No. 7       Page  23
In and Around the Bar
The SideBar

Lawyers Rally to Support Tribal Wills Project
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—

Court is a stately place—
I’ve heard men say—
So I loop my apron, against the Majesty
With bright Pins of Buttercup—
That not too plain—
Rank—overtake me—
—Emily Dickinson #373

An Oath As Good As Fry Bread

When you take the attorney’s oath of office
you swear to yourself and to the court
you will step outside of yourself to walk
in the shoes, the boots, the slippers,
the moccasins, the loafers, the high heels,
the tennis shoes, the ice skates of some
one else’s no longer comfortable fit.

You can feel the pinch of their desperation,
bad deal, loss, victimization, crash or ambit of
their fondest wish to leave something of their
own to the future’s very next ancestors


This oath of office allows you to cross tribal
boundaries within the jurisdiction of your mind
and heart’s ability to feel and listen well, reason
prudentially, give wise counsel freely to another
tying the constraints of the law to its ever-creative
possibility. In this, you stir the leaven of your
own legacy into good and edible fry bread.

(for all the new attorneys and the old ones on renewal)

—Greg Hobbs, 11/6/2013
Reprinted by permission

Celebration of Prof. Marsh being admitted to the Utah bar—for expansion of the Tribal Wills Project. Justice Greg Hobbs swore in Marsh. Hobbs participated in the founding of the Tribal Wills Project. Front row, left to right: Elizabeth Wills, Tammy Tallant, Sheena Goldsborough, Colin Fletcher, Justen Hansen, Stephanie Maas. Back row, left to right: Joseph Risch, Jeffrey Baumgartner, Angela Hopkins, Cindy Goldberg, Dianne Van Voorhees (head of MVL), Justice Gregory Hobbs, Prof. Lucy Marsh, John Roach (Fiduciary Trust Officer for the Southwest Region, who got it all started), Adjunct Prof. Alan Blakley, Kate Puckett, Shih-Kuei Chen, Prof. Tom Romero.

How does a dedicated law student spend spring break? By doing pro bono work on the reservations with the Tribal Wills Project! Thanks to a generous gift from the CBA Trust & Estate Section, donations from many individual lawyers and the University of Denver Sturm College of Law (Denver Law) faculty members, and a matching grant from the school, Denver Law students were able to double the size of the fledgling spring break Tribal Wills Project this year.

Twenty-two devoted their spring break to writing wills, medical powers of attorney, living wills, and burial instructions on the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute Reservations in Southwest Colorado, and on the White Mesa Reservation in Utah. For the 2014 summer break, many of the same students, plus two new students, accepted the invitation of the Ramah Band of the Navajo Nation to provide similar pro bono legal services at Ramah, New Mexico. The project is carried out under the supervision of six volunteer licensed attorneys: Molly Barnett, Beth Bryant, and Paul Padilla in Colorado; Lucy Marsh in Utah; and Mahlon Wigton and Padraic McCoy in New Mexico.

In Ramah, New Mexico, front row, left to right: Sheena Goldsborough, Molly Barnett, Julianna Cojo, Angela Hopkins, Ramah Probate Judge Michelle Begay, and Michelle Pav. Back row, staggered: Matt Hamblin, Alex Gunning, Adrien Anderson, Joshua Nowak, Jeffrey Baumgartner, Prof. Padraic McCoy, Prof. Lucy Marsh, and Joseph Risch.

Distributing Trust Assets

A federal statute, the American Indian Probate Reform Act (AIPRA), states that if tribal members do not have wills, all of their trust assets go to the oldest child or to the oldest grandchild. Even with a will, there are complex limits on how trust assets may be distributed. Only certain people qualify as "eligible heirs." Learning the complexities of AIPRA is a challenge for any attorney. The law students have met that challenge.

A Unique and Stimulating Legal Environment

Each year, the Tribal Wills Project has its share of unique and memorable experiences. For example, in the tiny community of White Mesa, Utah, the students set up shop in the gym of a recreation/community center, placing folding tables around the room. The second afternoon we were there, a group of young people of various sizes and ages began to gather at the edge of the gym. We realized that, unintentionally, we were using the space where an important basketball practice was supposed to take place. The basketball team had a big tournament coming up in two days. However, four clients were still in the midst of final discussions before signing their documents. So we moved all the tables to a vacant space along one wall of the gym. Two students were assigned to stand guard behind the clients—to protect them from stray basketballs flying in their direction and from players scrambling to rebound them—until the signing ceremonies were completed. Ultimately, the fourth client completed her documents after we moved her table into the narrow hallway.

In a small community, where everyone knows everyone else, the clients proudly pointed out their young relatives who were on the basketball team. They also appreciated having the students watch their backs during the signings.

On one of our days in White Mesa, a 4-year-old child adopted us—evidently having decided that a room full of electronic equipment and law students made a fine playground. We took turns (with varying degrees of success) distracting her with coloring, paper airplanes, and sundry makeshift activities.

On our final day at White Mesa, we had carefully scheduled everything so that we could leave at 3:00 p.m. (no matter what) for the two-hour drive back to our home base in Towaoc, Colorado. We were anticipating having plenty of daylight to take the spectacularly beautiful back roads from White Mesa to Towaoc, which student Joey Risch had pointed out to us. The route includes several important junctions (with no signs) and sometimes small, unattended flocks of sheep in the road.

However, we weren’t able to leave White Mesa by 3:00 p.m., because clients were still waiting to have a will made. We stayed to assist them and so did not leave White Mesa until much later, when almost everyone else had finished work for the day and most of the building was locked for the night. We ended up driving directly to the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation and staying there for the night, missing the special drive on the beautiful backroads. We were rewarded, however, by hearing two of our clients chatting happily in the Ute language and showing one another their documents.

In White Mesa, left to right: Matt Hamblin, Joseph Risch, Kate Puckett, Aubrey Bertram (holding the child who adopted us), Katlin Akers, and Lucy Marsh.

A Productive and Enjoyable Project

The Tribal Wills Project involves its fair share of work, but it also includes opportunities to meet and mingle with students, practitioners, and jurists in the Southwest. During our days in the region, we found time to have lunch with Native American students at Fort Lewis College; lunch with Durango attorneys and judges (thanks to Beth Padilla and John Baker); lunch in Cortez with Cortez attorneys and all three judges for Montezuma County (thanks to Jeremy Botkins and John Baker); and lunch with leaders of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. The latter opportunity included a concert by a talented young guitar player, Waylon Plentyholes, from the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation.

Thanks to support of the Tribal Wills Project from the legal community, the law students gained invaluable experience in interviewing clients and drafting appropriate wills, medical powers of attorney, living wills, and burial instructions. They also experienced the deep satisfaction that comes from providing pro bono legal services.

Congratulations to the students, listed below,
who participated in the 2014 Tribal Wills Project in the spring and summer 2014!

Kaitlin Akers
Adrien Anderson
Jeffrey Baumgartner
Aubrey Bertram
Joseph Curran
Ryan Cusick
Michael Ellis
Colin Fletcher
Laurinda Frederick
Sheena Goldsborough
Alex Gunning
Matthew Hamblin
Angela Hopkins
Meghan Leeman
Amber Marchlowska
Andrew Moore
Joshua Nowak
Michelle Pav
Kate Puckett
Joey Risch
Heidi Ruckriegle
Tammy Tallant
Elizabeth Wills

The CBA Trust and Estate Section presented $1,000 to the Denver Law Tribal Wills Project. Left to right: Spencer Crona, Melissa Schwartz, Lucy Marsh, Connie Eyster, Chuck Turner, Matthew Hamblin, Beth Bryant, Sheena Goldsborough, William Welch, Susan Boothby, Jane Paddison, and David Kirch.

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