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Probate & Property

[Note: This column was originally published by the Real Property, Probate and Trust Law Section of the American Bar Association in Probate & Property, Vol. 11, No. 2 (March/April 1997).]

RIA Estate Planning System

By Daniel B. Evans, Technology-Probate Editor

The steadily dropping costs of CD-ROM publishing, and the speed with which materials can be assembled into a single CD-ROM, have made it easier to create specialized products for particular practice areas. A growing number of products combine treatises, primary source materials such as statutes, regulations and court cases, and even forms into a comprehensive, one-disc library for a practice area. The first (and so far only) CD-ROM product specifically for estate planning and administration is the Estate Planning System (EPS) from Research Institute of America (RIA). It is actually a CD-ROM compilation of print and other materials, including:

Although these publications all come on the same disc, a separate installation code is needed for each publication, so a law firm can select which publications it wants to subscribe to and pay for only those parts of the CD-ROM.

How EPS Works
EPS is a Windows program, so it is most convenient to use a mouse to click on drop-down menus, tool bar icons, buttons embedded in text and hyperlinked text (a feature described below). The materials may be approached either through the table of contents or through word searches. From the main menu, the user selects text or a portion of text to read; the table of contents for that portion of the CD-ROM is then displayed in outline form.

Initially, only the major topic headings are displayed, but the user can click on any topic to display the next level of detail, filling the outline with more and more detail until the actual subject headings are displayed. The user can then click on a subject heading to reveal the relevant text and switch back and forth between the text and the table of contents by clicking on the appropriate tool bar icon. An advantage of EPS and other CD-ROMs is that it is not necessary to rely on the table of contents or traditional indexes. Instead, the full text of the commentaries, statutes, regulations and other materials can be searched for specific words or phrases.

EPS was created using Folio Views. The Folio Views "infobase" software system can search not only for individual words or phrases but also for combinations of words (logical "AND"), alternate words (logical "OR"), proximity connectors (words within a certain number of words of each other) and variations on words, including different forms of a word, different words with the same root or even synonyms of a word.

Another major advantage of electronic text is that materials can be linked for quick and easy cross-referencing. If the user is reading a commentary that refers to a private letter ruling or case and wants to see the full text, the user can click on the highlighted name or citation and the full text will be displayed on the screen. (Text with these kinds of links is sometimes called "hypertext" and the links called "hyperlinks.") One can also jump from Code sections to the relevant regulations and vice versa. And the program keeps the place in the text, so one can finish reading the cited case and return to exactly where one left off in the commentary. This feature eliminates a lot of the page-flipping that is necessary in traditional legal research.

Quirks and Limitations
Although the EPS CD-ROM has many advantages over the printed text, it is weakened by a too-literal translation from the printed text to the CD-ROM. For example, the printed version of Estate Planning Taxation Coordinator contains text interspersed with comments ("RIA Alerts") and footnotes. On the printed page, the many interruptions to the flow of the text are not a problem, because the eye can easily jump across paragraphs and from page to page. Viewed through the peephole of the average computer screen, which usually displays less than a half page of text at a time, the interruptions to the text are both distracting and unnecessary.

The strength of hypertext and other electronic means of presenting text is that the material traditionally included in footnotes or sidebars can be linked to the main text in more sophisticated ways, allowing the reader to follow the flow of an explanation and jump to digressions or details as necessary, without the physical interruptions to the text that are necessary in print. Particularly surprising is that the editors separ-ated each "page" of text in the Estate Planning Taxation Coordinator from the next "page" by footnotes, instead of converting the footnotes to endnotes with hyperlinks. The effect is rather like watching a movie and finding that the director had not bothered to turn off the camera while the sets were being changed between scenes, so that the movie consists of brief periods of dramatic action, separated by views of workers rearranging furniture.

The translation of the text from print to CD-ROM also results in some structural limitations that users will need to learn to manage. For example, the CD-ROM includes both the RIA Estate Planning Advisor and WGL's Income Taxation of Estates and Trusts, which overlap in their coverage of the subject matter. However, the two publications are in separate "infobases" and do not seem to be cross-linked. Furthermore, a word search for "grantor trust" in one publication will not display any text from the other pub-lication. Only by a word search across all infobases can all relevant information be located (along with the usual complement of irrelevant information that accompanies any word search).

Substantive Content
I have always considered the publications of RIA and WGL to be of the highest quality, and I found nothing in the federal materials to change that opinion. I looked at the state inheritance tax summary for Pennsylvania, however, and was surprised to find that the December 1996 disc did not reflect a major change in Pennsylvania inheritance tax rates enacted in June 1995. The Estate Planning Advisor includes a collection of will and trust clauses that can be used as guides to document drafting and as sources from which to cut and paste provisions for particular documents. There is no commentary on the forms, however, or any guide to the use of the various clauses. A future version of the CD-ROM reportedly will include the "Wealth Transfer Planning" will and trust document drafting system developed by Jonathan Blattmachr and Daniel Hastings using the General Counsel document assembly software from The Technology Group.

Federal and State Tax Forms
Along with research materials, the Estate Planning Advisor also includes the Windows-based RIA Electronic Tax Forms software and a collection of federal and state transfer tax and fiduciary income tax forms. This separate program is not a fully automated tax preparation program. In fact, it is really not much more that a "glass typewriter" to fill in forms. Nevertheless, it is simple and easy to use, with a comprehensive library of relevant federal and state forms, and could be very useful to lawyers who are still completing tax returns manually.

License Restrictions
One aspect of the license from RIA (and other major publishers) bears mentioning. Each of the monthly discs received as part of the annual subscription is configured to expire after three months. If the subscription is not renewed, the discs soon become useless. The cost of this system should not be compared to a purchased book or software program or even to a magazine subscription, but rather to an on-line research system for which one pays a monthly fee whether or not one uses it and which cannot be used once the subscription ends.

The estate and trust publications from RIA and WGL are excellent, and the search and cross-linking capabilities of the CD-ROM make the electronic versions even more useful than print versions, despite quirks in the present implementation. Any practitioner looking for an immediate, comprehensive estate and trust library should consider the Estate Planning System from RIA. For more information, contact RIA at (800) 431-9025, ext. 3.

Other Software Updates
The Bureau of National Affairs has released a new Windows program for preparing federal estate tax returns, BNA 706 Preparer for Windows. BNA Software, 1231 25th St., N.W., Washington, DC 20037, (202) 452-4435, (800) 372-1033, Fax: (202) 452-7547.

QTIP Projector is a new program for marital deduction calculations and projections from Projector Publishing, LLC, 6700 N. Oracle Rd., Suite 410, Tucson, AZ 85704, Fax: (520) 797-7178.

Change of address: The products previously sold by Shepards/ McGraw-Hill including Fiduciary Accounting for Trusts and Estates, Federal Estate Tax Returns Drafting Wills and Trusts, Estate Planning Concepts, Estate Practice Assistant and Fiduciary Income Tax Returns are now published by Clark Boardman Callaghan, 375 Hudson St., New York, NY 10014, (800) 890-5558.

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