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Begin the Trust Asset Probate Process

Upon the death of an American Indian or Alaska Native who owns trust land, restricted land, or trust funds the Bureau of Indian Affairs works with the surviving family to begin the probate process.

Summary

The trust asset probate process is complex and involves several federal agencies. The process begins once the death of an American Indian or Alaska Native, who owns trust assets, is reported to the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). A BIA probate staff member will create the decedent’s probate package by gathering documents and information pertaining to the decedent’s estate including the names of potential heirs and a will if one exists and is provided to BIA.

Once the probate package is complete, it is transferred to the Office of Hearings and Appeals (OHA) to be adjudicated and for a final probate decision to be issued. After the final probate decision is issued and the appeal period expires, the BIA Division of Land Titles and Records distributes any trust or restricted land and the Bureau of Trust Funds Administration (BTFA) distributes any trust funds from the estate account.

To facilitate the probate process the death of a family member must be promptly reported to the BIA and information and documents must be provided to the probate staff. This page contains information to assist you through the process.

Report the Death to the Bureau of Indian Affairs

To assist with the timely probate of the decedent’s trust assets the BIA should be notified immediately upon the death of an American Indian or Alaska Native who owns trust or restricted land or trust funds.

To report a death, contact the BIA agency where the decedent was enrolled. You can find the address and phone number for all BIA agencies in the BIA regional office directory.

If you are unsure which BIA agency to contact, you may report the death to any BIA agency. The BIA agency you contact will notify the BIA agency where the decedent was enrolled.

You may also contact the Bureau of Trust Funds Administration’s Trust Beneficiary Call Center by calling (888) 678-6836 or emailing tbccmail@btfa.gov.

After a death is reported, a probate staff member will verify the identity of the decedent and confirm whether the decedent owns any trust or restricted assets at the time of death. If the decedent owns any trust or restricted assets, a probate staff member will create a probate package and begin to compile information and gather documents for the decedent’s probate proceeding.

Probate Services Verifies the Death

After a death is reported, a probate staff member will begin working to verify the accuracy of the reported death. Family members may assist probate services by supplying a death certificate for the decedent.

Death Certificate

The preferred document to verify a death is a certified copy of a death certificate, if available. You may contact the BIA agency where the decedent was enrolled for suggestions to obtain a death certificate.

Public Record and Sworn Affidavit

If a death certificate cannot be obtained, federal regulations require a sworn affidavit to verify the death. The affidavit must be accompanied by one of the following documents:

  • Obituary from the local newspaper
  • Church record
  • Court record
  • Funeral home record
  • Coroner’s office record

Probate Services Creates Probate Package

The probate staff member will contact the decedent’s surviving family to request additional documents and information. Common documents requested include:

  • Original or certified copies of the decedent’s will, including any codicils (amendments) or revocations.
  • Tribal enrollment documents of the decedent and potential heirs and devisees.
  • Names and current addresses of the decedent’s potential heirs and devisees.
  • Original or certified copies of any marriage license, divorce decrees, or adoption papers of the decedent.
  • Judgments or claims against the decedent’s estate, including court orders requiring payment of spousal or child support.

A complete list of documents that may be requested during the probate process are included in federal regulation 25 CFR 15.105.

Next Steps

After the decedent’s probate package is complete, all information and documents will be transferred to the Office of Hearings and Appeals (OHA).

Additional Information

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