Pechanga Wills Clinic

The Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law’s Indian Legal Clinic partnered with the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians Tribal Leadership and the California Indian Legal Services on Sept. 23 and 24 in an extremely successful Indian Wills Clinic for the members of the Pechanga Band. At the event, free legal services were offered to members of the Band who wished to create wills for bequeathing their allotments. The Pechanga Indian Reservation includes a mix of trust lands, fee lands and lands owned by the Band, individual Indians and non-Indians.

Eleven members of the Band met with three Indian Legal Clinic students on the first day of the Clinic to discuss their estate planning needs. The students then drafted an Indian will that was ready for execution on the following day for each of the individuals. Jennifer Parisien, Tribal Treasurer Department Financial Analyst, coordinated the event while Michele Fahley, Deputy General Counsel for the Band, and Mica Llerandi, staff attorney with California Indian Legal Services, supervised the student attorneys.

“Ensuring tribal members have access to legal services in preparing Indian wills has been a long-term priority for my office,” said Steve Bodmer, JD ’06, the Band’s General Counsel. “When our Tribal Secretary and Tribal Treasurer reached out to me regarding adding wills to the Pechanga financial education series, my thoughts turned immediately to the Indian Legal Program as a possible resource to make this project a success.”

Robyn Delfino, Pechanga Band Tribal Treasurer, explained that the Wills Clinic was part of a larger initiative sponsored by the Tribal Treasury Department and Tribal Leadership with an aim of assisting members by providing education about financial management and legal tools for planning for the future.

“The amazing work that was performed in the Wills Clinic is evidenced in the reaction of the Band’s membership,” said Bodmer.

“The feedback from members was extremely positive,” added Delfino, “which resulted in multiple tribal members contacting us to ask when the next clinic would be held. The partnership between the Tribal Leadership, California Indian Legal Services, and the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law’s Indian Legal Clinic was a win-win situation where tribal members gained very valuable services while students gained very valuable educational experiences.”

The students involved in the Wills Clinic were universal in their appreciation for the learning opportunities the program provided.

“I am thankful for the rewarding and humbling experience of working with clients to prepare their wills from start to finish,” shared Cynthia Freeman, JD candidate ’20, “I am grateful for the first-hand practical experience, which
is a great contribution to my overall legal education.”

Cora Tso, JD candidate ’20, said “creating a will is a proactive step for members to take to protect their families for generations to come. It was an amazing experience to be able to help them with their endeavors.”

Shayla Bowles, JD candidate ’20, was happy for the experience in counseling clients.

“From a practical standpoint, I learned how to conduct an interview while acknowledging the very sensitive and personal nature of estate planning,” said Bowles. “Because drafting Indian wills is a specialty, I feel blessed to have this knowledge to apply in my legal future.”

“The students did a tremendous job of building the clients’ trust in the limited amount of time available to them,” said Helen Burtis, JD ’07, the faculty associate overseeing the students’ participation in the Wills Clinic. They prepared for
the Wills Clinic by learning about fractionalization of allotments and the
American Indian Probate Reform Act.

“Drafting Indian Wills is technically complex, and the students were dedicated to getting the clients’ estate planning wishes accurately incorporated into the documents,” Burtis added. “On behalf of the Indian Legal Clinic and the Indian Legal Program, I would like to thank Pechanga Tribal Leadership and staff as well as the members who agreed to work with students for letting our students take part in this valuable program.”