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Probate and Estate Litigation Blog

Remains of athlete Jim Thorpe subject of ongoing court battle

A probate dispute in Minnesota will usually be resolved by Minnesota's own court system because the laws of Minnesota usually govern things like will contests and conflicts over trusts and estates. However, as illustrated by a case in another state recently, in some situations federal law can apply to probate disputes.

The case involves the mortal remains of Jim Thorpe, a famous Native American athlete who excelled in several different sporting events. He is now known as a pioneer among American Indians because of his contributions to the world of sports.

When Thorpe died, his wife had him buried in a community that now bears his name. The town and Thorpe's grandchildren are now appealing an order from a federal judge that requires the town to hand over the remains to Thorpe's tribe. According to one source, the tribe will bury the famous athlete on the tribal Indian reservation. The lawsuit seeking the transfer of the remains was originally filed by one of Thorpe's sons.

Thorpe's kin and the tribe rely on a federal law originally designed to prevent people and institutions from improperly seizing Indian artifacts or skeletons and putting them on display or using them for cultural purposes. For its part, the community says that the federal law simply does not apply to this situation since Thorpe and his family arranged for his burial in the town. The town describes the dispute as a state-level probate issue between Thorpe's descendants.

It is not clear when the appellate court will issue a decision determining whether the lower court's order to return the body will stand. In any event, however, this case demonstrates that sometimes, in rare instances, different federal laws can impact the outcome of a probate court battle.

Source: The Morning Call, "Appeals court hears Jim Thorpe's arguments on athlete's remains," Peter Hall, Feb. 14, 2014

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