Death, Taxes & the Web
By Robert J. Ambrogi
IF THE ONLY certainties in life are death and taxes, then it is easy to understand the value of an estate-planning lawyer, whose job it is to apply the laws governing both. For the lawyers who toil in this field, the Internet offers a way to research tax and probate laws, keep current with new developments, and even obtain sample estate plans.
While the Web is home to a surprisingly large number of estate-planning sites, the bulk of them are aimed at consumers and offer little of use to professionals. For this reason, a good place to start is the Estate Planning Links Web Site. Created and maintained by lawyers, it may well be the most extensive collection of estate-planning links, with pointers to sites for estate and gift taxes, elder law, probate and trusts, charitable planning and philanthropy, and estate planning software. Originally compiled in 1995 by Dennis M. Kennedy, then a trusts and estates lawyer in St. Louis, Mo., it is now maintained by Dennis Toman, partner with Booth Harrington Johns & Toman, Greensboro, N.C.
Another comprehensive, well-organized and up-to-date collection of links to estate-planning resources on the Web is Legal Research for Estate Planners. Created by Jason E. Havens, an estate-planning lawyer in Fort Myers, Fla., this annotated guide covers both national and state-specific sites and also indexes sites by topic and type of resource.
Always a good place to start for research into any legal topic is Cornell University's Legal Information Institute, and such is the case with its library of Estate Planning Law Materials. Here you will find hypertext versions of 26 U.S.C. Subtitle B, covering federal estate and gift taxes, as well as the related provisions of the Code of Federal Regulations. Also available are recent U.S. Supreme Court cases related to estate and gift taxes and the texts of the Uniform Probate Code, Uniform Principal and Income Act, Uniform Trusts Act and Uniform Fiduciaries Act. The LII also includes links to the IRS and related state probate, property and tax statutes.
What was once one of the best estate- planning destinations, California Estate Planning, Probate and Trust Law, has grown somewhat out-of-date, with a few too many stale articles and expired links, but remains a useful starting point nonetheless. Although oriented to California consumers, the site also offers much for lawyers in any state. Among the features are an analysis of estate and gift tax aspects of the 1997 Budget Act, a collection of legal articles, a forms library, and links to other sites. Probably the most popular feature is the site's collection of wills on the Web one that includes the wills of celebrities such as Princess Diana, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe, as well as those of ordinary people, in some cases dating to the 15th and 16th centuries.
Pennsylvania and Texas
Two other sites with a state focus but broader appeal are the Pennsylvania Estate and Trust Cybrary, and the Texas Probate Web Site. Philadelphia lawyer Daniel B. Evans, an active member of and frequent author for the American Bar Association's Real Property, Probate and Trust Law and Small Firm Management sections, maintains the former. It contains a number of useful articles on estate planning, practice management and legal technology.
The Texas site, published by Austin lawyer Glenn M. Karisch, grew out of his efforts to track and report on probate legislation in the state, and the legislation section remains a primary feature, with up-to-date information on bills affecting estate planning, probate law and trust law. A collection of links, prepared by Karisch for a presentation at the 1999 annual meeting of the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel, includes his annotations, with the best earning his "four chili pepper" rating.
For keeping current with the law on a national basis, a good bet is RIA, the publisher of tax research products and software. Much of its sizable catalog of estate-planning products is available for delivery via the Web, including the monthly newsletter, Estate Planner's Alert; the more analytical Estate Planning Journal; the book, Estate Planning Law & Taxation; and several others. Of course, although on the Web, they are not free. An annual subscription to Estate Planner's Alert, for example, is $165. But RIA offers free trials of some of its Web-based products and free demos of others.
Another tax and business-law publisher with a catalog of Web-based estate-planning products is CCH Federal and State Tax. Follow the link "Financial and Estate Planning" to find online offerings such as CCH Solutions for Financial Planning, a Web-based library written by financial planning experts that includes analysis, advice, an online dicussion forum, sample forms and documents, checklists, and more. Also featured is the Financial and Estate Planning Library, a comprehensive, online library that combines electronic versions of several CCH publications to provide daily news, in-depth analysis, expert commentary, full-text laws, financial calculators, interactive tax forms, and other practical features. The site offers no pricing information, but provides phone numbers and e-mail addresses for those wanting to learn more.
While RIA and CCH require a paid subscription, a free site with a broad range of tax-analysis articles, including many on estate planning, is that of San Francisco lawyer and columnist Robert L. Sommers, aka The Tax Prophet. Sommers writes prolifically for the San Francisco Examiner and elsewhere, and he publishes his many columns and scholarly articles on his Web site, richly illustrated with wizards and crystal balls. For a shortcut to his estate-planning articles, follow the "Tax Class" link to a page where he has indexed his articles by subject matter and level of sophistication.
In contrast to Sommers' professionally designed site, there is something decidedly homespun about Trusts and Estates.net, from Fort Worth, Texas, estate-planning lawyer Noel C. Ice. Take, for example, Ice's front-page photo, with its label, "Not my best picture." But beneath the amateurish facade, there is real substance. Ice has authored a virtual treatise on estate planning for distributions from qualified plans and IRAs, which is available here in toto. He also offers a series of "nutshell" guides to estate planning topics, written for legal consumers. A variety of other articles fill out the site, some written specifically for lawyers.
Bar association sites focusing on estate planning vary in substance and depth. Some provide only general membership information, while others strive to provide deeper levels of practical resources. One of the best comes from the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys, an organization of lawyers who concentrate in legal issues affecting the elderly and disabled, including estate planning. NAELA restricts part of its site to members, but the public area has several useful features. For those seeking a lawyer, NAELA provides a directory of its members, which can be searched by lawyer name, firm name, location or area of proficiency. NAELA's collection of links is particularly well done, with each link annotated with a brief description.
Less robust is the site of the American Bar Association Section on Real Property, Probate and Trust Law, with general information about section activities, membership and publications. It has the full text of Property & Probate, its bimonthly magazine, although access to many articles is restricted to section members, while only selected articles are available to non-members. It also has the tables of contents of Real Property, Probate & Trust Journal, with selected issues available in full text, although, again, only to section members. Visitors can browse a catalog of estate-planning books and media published by the ABA and make purchases online.
The American College of Trust and Estate Counsel, also limits much of its Web site to its members. The public area provides little of substance. It includes a haphazard collection of links to estate-planning and other Internet resources. It also has the tables of contents from its newsletter, but no ability to retrieve the full text of any article. The membership section allows anyone to search for ACTEC fellows by state.
If your practice skills are a bit rusty, you may want to end your tour of estate-planning sites with the Crash Course in Wills and Trusts. What started as an outline by Kentucky lawyer Michael T. Palermo for an adult education class at a local community college evolved into this fairly detailed, hypertext manuscript covering the basics of estate planning. Browse the table of contents for specific chapters or flip page-by-page through the entire work. This award-winning site has been online several years, but Palermo keeps it current with updates reflecting developments in the law.
Robert J. Ambrogi is director of the American Lawyer Media News Service.