Wills Made Easy

Dear Dr. Per Cap:

Is there a cheap way to write a will?  I don’t want to hassle with an attorney.


Need a Will

Dear Need

Depending on your situation writing a will doesn’t have to be a major undertaking.  In fact it can be pretty straight forward.  However, as a Native person there are questions to consider.  For starters do you live on the rez or are you an urban dweller?  Do you have individual ownership in any trust land?  If so, does your tribe have a probate code?

I’m told the only tribe with its own probate code is Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate so unless you’re rocking that Santee Dakota blood, your tribe is subject to the American Indian Probate Reform Act of 2004.  AIPRA supersedes state laws when determining how trust lands on reservations pass from one generation to the next.

I reached out to a colleague for timely advice on this topic who explained that many people don’t realize a written will is only effective upon a person’s passing.   So you can change or edit a will any time before then.  Major life changes like marriage, divorce, birth of a child, or a death in the family are common situations when a person might rewrite a will.

You also don’t need an attorney to write a will and it doesn’t have to be fancy. Heck, you can write one on the back of an envelope with a purple Sharpie as long as you are 18-years-old and the will is witnessed by at least 2 disinterested parties of sound legal mind.  That’s legal speak for a level headed person who isn’t a close relation who might benefit from your estate; so no children, grandkids, husbands, wives, significant other, or anyone else who stands to inherit any of your assets.

Next step is to safeguard your will.  Nope, a coffee can under the bed doesn’t cut it.  And the BIA isn’t in the business of storing wills so don’t hotfoot it to your local agency office.  Better to buy a small home safe or open a safe deposit box at a bank so your will can’t be stolen or altered without your knowledge.  Then make sure a trusted person can access the document if necessary.

I’m glad you’re looking ahead and taking ownership because there’s more to personal finance than bank accounts, budgets, and credit reports.  Life in Indian Country would also run a whole lot smoother if more folks paid attention to estate planning.

For more info about wills and AIPRA, check out this handy guide created by Montana State University Extension and its tribal partners.

Ask Dr. Per Cap is a program funded by First Nations Development Institute with assistance from the FINRA Investor Education Foundation. This content does not constitute professional and/or financial advice, and Dr. Per Cap is not a licensed investment advisor. To send a question to Dr. Per Cap, email askdrpercap@firstnations.org.