Tribal Wills Project
When Congress amended the American Indian Probate Reform Act (AIPRA) in 2008, it drastically curtailed the way that tribal members’ trust lands are distributed to their families after death. Under the act, if a tribal member dies without a will, nearly all his or her trust land passes only to the one oldest child, (oldest grandchild or oldest great-grand-child) – leaving no trust land to the surviving spouse or to the other children. Thus, it is vitally important for tribal members to have wills.
Yet there are very few lawyers available on the reservations, and very few lawyers who understand the complexities of AIPRA. The Tribal Wills Project was created to help tribal members write much needed wills, medical powers of attorney, living wills, and memorial instructions.
Three times each year, up to twenty law students dedicate a week of vacation time to travel to various reservations to provide these documents to tribal members – at no cost – always at the invitation of the tribe or nation involved. Students are assisted by an assortment of generous volunteer attorneys to ensure that each document is correct, and appropriate for the individual client. To date we have served clients in seven different states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, South Dakota, and Utah.
The Honorable Gregory J. Hobbs, Jr. (1944 – 2021), former Justice of the Colorado Supreme Court, was renowned for his work in environmental, water, and land use law. His many books include writing on water resource law and poetry.
“I’ve so much enjoyed seeing DU Law students participate in the Tribal Wills work for members of the Ute and Navajo Tribes. In my view, there’s no more interesting country than the Four Corners States of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah. To be of help to others who really need it! To learn by contributing to these unique communities on their own ground face to face! In the time and place of their need. To be able to do this with fellow law students and practicing attorneys. What a terrific contribution you can make. I hope you are able to join this great work.”
Molly Barnett is an attorney in Boulder, CO and has experience practicing in Indian law and trust and estates law.
“I am proud to be one of the supervising attorneys for the Tribal Wills Project, in which students gain valuable experience in all aspects of client representation while simultaneously furthering important policy goals for tribal land.”
“I participated in the Tribal Wills Project over Spring Break of 2013, the first year. It was truly the most rewarding and valuable experience of my law school career. Tribal Wills allowed me to work one on one with clients for the first time, and I was able to learn a lot about the drafting process. More importantly, I felt like we were using our skills as law students to help others in a meaningful way. I also enjoyed working as a team and getting to know everyone throughout the week. I value this experience and I highly recommend the Tribal Wills Project to anyone in law school.” — Ansley Sherman, JD'14
“The Tribal Wills Project provides the opportunity for students to expand their legal and cultural horizons, while understanding the value of pro bono work. It has been a highlight of my law school career. Not only did I gain lawyering skills through experiential learning, but also connected with the culture of southwest Colorado.” — Kate Puckett, JD'14
“The Tribal Wills Project was the best thing I have done as a DU Law student. I got direct face-to-face experience with clients and felt like the work we accomplished really benefited tribal members on a personal level. I loved the team-dynamic everyone on the project team shared. We essentially opened up a micro law-firm and it felt great when everyone was firing on all cylinders.” — Ryan Cusick, JD'15
"The Tribal Wills Project is the perfect intersection between experiential learning and serving an unmet need in the community. The Project is an opportunity for soon-to-be lawyers to make a difference in people’s lives and gain real-world experience, which augments their law school experience. Moreover, it is an opportunity to offer fundamental legal services to a community that may not otherwise have access to those services. Ultimately, it is a symbiotic and mutually beneficial experience that cannot be replicated in a classroom." — Paul Padilla, Supervising Attorney
The Tribal Wills Project was created in February 2013, in response to a letter sent to all law schools in the southwest by John Roach, Fiduciary Trust officer for the Southwest Region of the United States. DU was the only law school to respond to John’s letter.
On February 9, 2013, a brain-storming session was held, including Justice Gregory Hobbs, Colorado Supreme Court; Ernest House, Jr., Executive Secretary, Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs; John Roach, Fiduciary Trust Officer for the Southwest Region; Lindsey Webb, Director of Public Interest & Externships; Professor Lucy Marsh, DU Sturm College of Law faculty member; and Sheena Goldsborough, DU Strum College of Law Student. From this session, the idea for the TWP was born.
With the help of all those who developed the idea, plus Jon Asher, Executive Director of Colorado Legal Services; Dianne Van Vorhees, Executive Director of Metropolitan Volunteers Lawyers; and David Armstrong, Esq. Director, Indian Law Office, Wisconsin Judicare, the idea for the TWP was turned into a reality.
Since then, we have served clients in seven states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, South Dakota and Utah.
Timeline of Adventures
In March of 2013, DU law students along with several supervising attorneys took their first trip to southern Colorado to perform work at the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute Reservations.
In March of 2014, DU law students returned to both the Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute Reservations. Students also extended their reach to more of the Ute Mountain Ute tribe in White Mesa, Utah.
In May of 2014, DU law students packed their bags and traveled to Ramah, New Mexico to serve the Ramah Band of the Navajo Nation.
Ramah, New Mexico – Ramah Band, Navajo Nation, January 5th – 9th, 2015
Ignacio, Colorado; Towaoc, Colorado; and White Mesa, Utah – Southern Ute & Ute Mountain Ute, March 16th – 20th, 2015
Ramah Band of Navajo Nation and Crownpoint Band of the Navajo Nation, Ramah and Crownpoint, New Mexico, May 2015 Trip – May 17 – 22
Nenahnezad and Nagezzi, Navajo Nation Chapter Houses, New Mexico, March 2016
Pryor and Crow Agency, Montana, May 2016
Ft. McDowell and Wild Horse, Phoenix, Arizona, January 2017
Upper Fruitland and Nenahnezad Navajo Nation Chapter Houses, New Mexico, March 2017
Pryor and Crow Agency, Montana, May 2017
Tohajiilee Chapter House and Albuquerque, New Mexico, January 2-6, 2018
Nenahnezad and Upper Fruitland Navajo Chapter Houses, March 11- 15, 2018
Yankton Sioux Reservation, South Dakota, May 21-24, 2018
Crownpoint and Gallup, New Mexico July 7 – 14, 2018
Tohono O'odham Nation, Tucson, Arizona, January 2019
Ute Mountain Ute, Towaoc, Colorado, March 2019
Cahuilla Band of Indians, Anza, California, May 2019
Tohono O'odham Nation, Tucson, Arizona, January 2020
University closures and travel restrictions due to COVID-19 prevent trips.
Upper Fruitland and Nenahnezad Navajo Nation Chapter Houses, New Mexico, January 2023
Navajo Nation, Window Rock, Arizona, March 2023
Ute Mountain Ute, Towaoc, Colorado, May 2023
Through the generous support of donors, we are able to ensure that no law student is prevented from joining in this pro bono service because of finances. All donations are tax deductible. We would greatly appreciate any donation you might be able to make to help support the cost of travel, lodging and food.
Please make checks payable to:
University of Denver Sturm College of Law – Tribal Wills Project
Please address envelopes to:
Prof. Lucy Marsh
Univ. of Denver Sturm College of Law
2255 E. Evans Ave.
Denver, CO 80208
The Tribal Wills Project is open to all law students, from second- and third-year students who interview, draft and oversee the execution of legal documents, to first-year students who serve as project directors.
In addition, the project always welcomes volunteer supervising attorneys who guide the students as they work alongside clients.
Contact the Tribal Wills Project
In the News
The Tribal Wills Project is gaining a significant reputation in the legal community and beyond.
A Decade of Service: Tribal Wills Project Turns Ten
Through ten years and 22 trips, the Tribal Wills Project has produced hundreds of wills to help thousands of individual tribal members.
Press Release: Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren Welcomes Volunteer Law Students
“You’re doing this out of the goodness of your heart and sense of duty, a sense of, ‘How can we help Navajo people with some of the things that is very difficult to do on their own?’” President Nygren said.
DU’s Tribal Wills Project Helps Students and Clients Navigate Complexities of Federal Indian Law and Estates
The Tribal Wills Project at the University of Denver approaches its 10th anniversary assisting regional tribal members.
Tribal Wills Project Partners with Dependable Cleaners-Coats for Colorado Providing Winter Coats to Native American Tribal Members
The current donation of coats is in addition to a previous supply of coats for children, many of whom had never owned a winter coat.
DU Professor Lucy Marsh Leads the Tribal Wills Project Team
It always begins with a group meal, a celebration of the mission that we are undertaking, and a gracious thank you from our hostess for joining her on this journey. Professor Lucy Marsh has been organizing and overseeing two to three trips like this each year for the past four years.
Program Helps Native Americans Develop Wills
With the help of a Navajo language interpreter, Rosie A. Chavez asked questions about the process to draft a will. She traveled from Nageezi to the Upper Fruitland Chapter house on Wednesday to participate in the Tribal Wills Project, an effort by the University of Denver Sturm College of Law that provides free wills to Native Americans.
American Indians Grapple with Land Divided by History
The Tribal Wills Project helps Crow Indians to write wills and make sense of a complex property puzzle.
Tribal Wills Project Completes First Trip
Eleven law students spent their 2013 spring break preparing over 60 wills for two Native American tribes as part of DU’s first Tribal Wills Project visit with tribal members.
Launch of Tribal Wills Project at DU
In November 2012, John Roach, Fiduciary Trust Officer for the Southwest Region, Department of Interior, reached out to the Student Law Office to see if students wanted to draft wills.