P R O B A T E   &   P R O P E R T Y
Nov/Dec 2004
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Articles from other issues of Probate and Property

Department

Technology Probate

Technology—Probate Editor: Jason E. Havens, 1223 Airport Road, Suite 101, Destin, FL 32541; jasonhavens@abanet.org.

Technology—Probate provides information on current technology and microcomputer software of interest in the probate and estate planning areas. The editors of Probate & Property welcome information and suggestions from readers.

The Advanced Course in Drafting Systems

Would you like to automate your drafting in your estate planning practice? Does drafting automation seem like an insurmountable task? Even if you have automated your drafting, would you like to make the process much more efficient?

Drafting Estate Planning Documents: Course 101

This column has discussed the more basic concepts of drafting systems and drafting approaches on several occasions (July/August 1998, March/April 1999, and July/August 2000). Drafting systems remain a hot topic on helpful resources such as the Estate Planner’s and Administrator’s Discussion (the “ABA-PTL” list: http://mail.abanet.org/archives/aba-ptl.html or http://home.ease.lsoft.com/archives/aba-ptl-pub.html), a useful place to obtain information on, and firsthand reviews of, drafting systems. For a more comprehensive, fundamental discussion of drafting estate planning documents, readers should consult the valuable book, Wills, Trusts and Technology: An Estate and Trust Lawyer’s Guide to Automation (2d ed. 2004), written by this column’s longtime editor, Daniel B. Evans, and published by the American Bar Association’s Section of Real Property, Probate and Trust Law.

The question that most estate planning (or “trusts and estates”) lawyers pose is, “How can an estate planning lawyer make the most out of his or her drafting system in a relatively short amount of time?” Thus, this column turns to the more “advanced” discussion of drafting systems.

Drafting Estate Planning Documents: Course 102

As discussed in detail in the resources mentioned above, numerous drafting systems exist. To use a drafting system efficiently, however, an estate planning lawyer must master the following three keys to the drafting system’s efficient operation.

Templates

First, templates triumph. If an estate planning lawyer or a staff member (the user) must input every response to every question that the drafting system presents every time that he or she prepares a document, the drafting system will never maximize the user’s time and efficiency. The user must either create templates for his or her own use or create templates so that he or she can assign drafting assignments to those who do not understand the law as well, but who can input basic client information and make minor changes to a template to produce an effective document that the estate planning lawyer can review relatively quickly.

For purposes of this column, “templates” refers to frequently used answer sets that accomplish a particular result within a drafting system. Various drafting systems refer to these reusable files as “overlay answer files,” “pattern answer files,” and “profiles,” but all are called “templates” here.

Which drafting systems allow the use of templates or similar ways to reuse settings to produce an effective document in an efficient manner? In alphabetical order of only a limited number of examples, Lawgic’s Wills & Trusts drafting systems are shipped with Holland & Knight’s sample templates. The Lawgic user also can create templates using Lawgic’s “Template Assistant” tool and a sample set of responses to the drafting system’s questions. Lawgic’s “Template Assistant” can help the user eliminate client-specific information, such as biographical and family information, as well as responses that would vary from one client to another, such as the required use of an independent co-trustee. For example, a Lawgic user could create 10 templates for the following general client profiles: single or married client’s basic will, single or married client’s stand-alone will, single or married client’s stand-alone will with business interest provisions, single or married client’s revocable trust, and single or married client’s revocable trust with business interest provisions.

Most lawyers have probably heard the buzz about HotDocs. The most popular HotDocs-based drafting system for estate planning lawyers is WealthCounsel’s WealthDocs. WealthDocs, now in its sixth comprehensive version, provides numerous templates to create documents on the HotDocs platform. A WealthDocs user might decide to (1) create his or her own templates, which he or she can do, (2) ask one of the many helpful fellow users for a customized template via one of WealthCounsel’s several discussion lists (and, with this collegial group, one would probably receive several choices), or (3) engage a consultant who is intimately familiar with WealthDocs. For example, Debra Goodwin, a former employee of WealthCounsel and a WealthDocs guru, has formed RunTime Automations to assist WealthCounsel members with customizing templates or creating new HotDocs documents based on the WealthDocs user’s own documents. Ms. Goodwin’s intimate knowledge of HotDocs and WealthDocs, combined with her excellent relationship with WealthCounsel and its members, enables her to provide outstanding service at a fraction of the cost of other HotDocs consultants.

Even if the user were new to the estate planning arena, he or she would probably know the name Jonathan G. Blattmachr. Mr. Blattmachr’s drafting system, Wealth Transfer Planning, now co-authored by Michael L. Graham, guides its users through its comprehensive offerings. Wealth Transfer Planning is the only drafting system to provide practitioner concept memoranda, which aid the Wealth Transfer Planning user in understanding complex estate planning documents and techniques. The aspect of Wealth Transfer Planning that really interests most users, however, is that it arrives with Mr. Blattmachr’s templates for virtually every conceivable estate planning document. A Wealth Transfer Planning user can create his or her own templates for letters, facsimiles, or memoranda using the “New Standard Document” feature (by toggling to new “Template”). If a user needs additional help, he or she may consult the “Help” section of Wealth Transfer Planning under “Creating a New Smart Package” or contact Wealth Transfer Planning directly.

Automating estate planning documents is only the first step. Using templates and similar “standard response/answer” sets is probably the most important hurdle in making a lawyer’s practice truly efficient and more profitable.

Simplification of Data Entry

Second, simplifying data entry or input of information is important in maximizing document assembly efficiency. If a user must enter data for every client once in his or her law office (or “case”) management program, once in his or her drafting system, and once in his or her calculation application, efficiency will inevitably suffer.

The magic acronym (which estate planning lawyers enjoy) in this part of the discussion is ODBC, which stands for “Open DataBase Connectivity.” Every competitive, contemporary software vendor aspires to create an application that complies with ODBC. In so doing, the user can enter data once and then access it from various applications.

Some drafting systems are shipped with direct ODBC links to other applications. For example, WealthCounsel’s WealthDocs operates seamlessly with other HotDocs-based applications such as Connect2A, an impressive information-sharing provider that allows collaboration of professionals and their applications.

What is missing in this aspect of the practice is true information sharing among key software applications for estate planning lawyers. Thus, the estate planning lawyer unfortunately cannot find a current comprehensive solution to this problem. Readers should urge software vendors to provide this type of information sharing and interoperability.

Delegation

Third, if an estate planning lawyer ever hopes to become more efficient, he or she must delegate as much as possible. Capable associate attorneys and staff members who form part of the estate planning team can optimize efficiency.

To use a team, an estate planning lawyer needs several tools: (1) checklists, which are available inside of most of the drafting systems and also in Mr. Evans’s book mentioned above (but should probably be customized to one’s own style and approach), (2) a procedure manual that is customized to a particular estate planning practice (potentially based on one of the American Bar Association manuals), and (3) a training manual and process to implement all automation from law office management to calculations to client illustrations to drafting to funding and follow-up.

Some vendors offer training for team members. For example, WealthCounsel offers a free “Software Training” course for WealthCounsel members and their staffs, with electronic registration (under the “Education” tab of the WealthCounsel web site). Wealth Transfer Planning also offers training courses: “WTP 101: The Basics,” which is free to all subscribers and their staffs, and “WTP 102: Editing & Formatting ‘Smart’ Documents,” which is included in the Wealth Transfer Planning premium support subscription and available for an additional fee to all other subscribers.

Conclusion

Selecting an effective drafting system is an important first step in an estate planning lawyer’s effort to become more efficient. But additional steps, such as creating and using templates within that drafting system, simplifying data entry, and delegating drafting tasks, will take the estate planning lawyer to the next level of productivity. No single solution applies. With effort, though, estate planning lawyers can optimize the efficiency and effectiveness of their practices.

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