Internet Resources for Estate Practitioners
by Daniel B. Evans
By Daniel B. Evans
In the early days of the Internet, it was necessary to keep lots of “bookmarks” to remember how to find useful websites. Nowadays, it’s less important to know the exact web address for a web site than to know how to use a search engine to find what you want.
For example, if you want to look at something in the Internal Revenue Code, all you need to do is enter “United States Code” into Google and you have your choice of browsing Title 26 of the USC at either the Government Printing Office or the Cornell Law Information Institute.
But it’s important to know that there is something to look for. You’re never going to find something like copies of local probate forms on the Internet unless you look for them.
This article will describe some Googling tips, some web sites of national interest, and the sorts of things estate and trust lawyers might want to look for relating to state law or local practice.
Google ® can limit a search to a particular website by including the string “site: www.domain.com” in the search. This can be very helpful in finding something that is known to be on a particular site because it excludes all results from all other sites and so excludes results that are known to be irrelevant.
For example, it is often very difficult to navigate the IRS web site, and it can be much easier to find relevant information published on-line by the IRS if the search is limited by “site: www.irs.gov”. Similarly, recent Tax Court opinions can be found by entering names or other key words or phrases and limiting the search by adding “site: www.ustaxcourt.gov”.
It is also sometimes helpful to put specific phrases in quotations. The Google ® search algorithm does use word proximity among the factors it considers in ranking results, but quotations can still help to narrow the focus of a search. For example, “charitable remainder trust” (within quotation marks) will produce a much narrow search than the words “charitable” and “remainder” and “trust” entered separately, without quotation marks.
If you use Google ® frequently, you might want to install the special Google ® toolbar that is available for MS Internet Explorer ®, as well as Netscape Navigator ®. (A Google ® search tool is also built into Mozilla Firefox ®.)
United States Code ( www.gpoaccess.gov/uscode)
Searchable and downloadable version of the United States Code prepared by the Office of Law Revision Counsel. There is also a copy of the U.S. Code that is somewhat easier to search and navigate at the Cornell Legal Information Institute (www.law.cornell.edu/uscode).
Thomas ( thomas.loc.gov)
Maintained by the Library of Congress, this site (named after Thomas Jefferson) provides access to Congressional bills, reports, and legislative histories, and well as the text of statutes as finally enacted.
Code of Federal Regulations ( www.gpoaccess.gov/cfr or www.law.cornell.edu/cfr )
Searchable copy of the CFR maintained by the National Archives and Records Administration through the web site of the U.S. Government Printing Office; the second reference is to the Cornell Law School “front-end” to the same material.
Federal Register ( www.gpoaccess.gov/fr/index.html)
Searchable from 1995 onward, and maintained by the U.S. Government Printing Office.
Internal Revenue Service ( www.irs.gov)
Often difficult to navigate, but provides forms and publications (in PDF format, sometimes fillable), as well as Internal Revenue Bulletins, private rulings, and other releases by the IRS, and access to the Internal Revenue Manual. There is an on-line application for EINs (http://www.irs.gov/businesses/small/article/0,,id=102767,00.html) and a searchable Publication 78 (apps.irs.gov/app/pub78) for the names and status of charitable organizations. You can also subscribe to the IRS Newswire (www.irs.gov/newsroom/content/0,,id=105771,00.html) that will provide e-mail announcements of new Notices, Revenue Rulings, and Revenue Procedures as they are released.
United States Tax Court ( www.ustaxcourt.gov)
Dockets and opinions (in PDF) searchable by party name or case number, as well as court rules.
Circuit Courts of Appeals
Most federal circuits have web sites with copies of published decisions, so it’s easy to get a copy of a decision if you know the name of the case and which circuit decided it, but there isn’t any good, free website for searching circuit court opinions by word or subject. See, for example, the Cornell Legal Information Institute (www.law.cornell.edu/federal/opinions.html), as well as Findlaw ( www.findlaw.com) and LexisOne ( www.lexisone.com).
U.S. Supreme Court ( www.supremecourtus.gov)
On-line docket searchable by party name, and slip opinions arranged by date and party name.
All (or at least most) states have home pages that are in the form “www.state.XX.us” where “XX” represents the two-letter postal abbreviation for the state. On those state web sites, you can often find state statutes, regulations, tax forms, and other useful information.
Some other things worth looking for:
- Birth certificates, death records, and other vital statistics are rarely available on-line, but there are several websites (e.g., ssdi.genealogy.rootsweb.com and www.familysearch.org) that allow free access to the Social Security Death Index, which can be searched by name and provide the date of death, date of birth, Social Security number, and last known address of decedents who were receiving Social Security benefits at the time of death.
- There may be corporate information on-line, so that you can search for the availability of a name for a new corporation, limited liability company, or limited partnership (as well download corporate forms).
- There may also be a database of unclaimed property, allowing searches for property that a decedent might have lost track of. See the website of the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators ( www.unclaimed.org) for more information.
- Many states also have on-line records of lawyers admitted to practice in that state, which can be useful when trying to track down the original of a will when all you have is a copy with the name of a lawyer on it. These state records will be more complete than Martindale-Hubbell ( www.lawyers.com ) or Findlaw ( www.findlaw.com).
- Many state lawyer discipline boards will also have the state ethical rules on-line, along with ethics opinions and records of lawyer discipline. (As noted below, many bar associations also publish ethics opinions on-line.)
Searching for city and county information on-line starts to get very iffy. Some counties have on-line probate court dockets and electronic filing, while others might have little more than a page telling you how happy they will be to serve you if you come to their offices.
But you never know until you look, and the following are possible:
- Local forms and rules of court.
- On-line (searchable) dockets of wills filed for probate or estate litigation.
- Almost all courts are moving toward electronic filing and, although estate and trust practice is somewhat behind other practice areas, many counties are now accepting on-line filings of electronic petitions for probate and electronic accountings and other estate and trust pleadings.
- Local real estate records are frequently on-line, which makes it possible to check on the title to the decedent’s residence or other property, as well as the current assessment and any taxes owed. There are also fee-based services, such as Knowx ( www.knowx.com ), that can search various types of property records.
National, state, and local bar associations often have websites that can be valuable sources of practice information, both in terms of substantive law and the ethics, technology, and ethics of practice management.
Our own ABA Real Property, Probate and Trust Law Section has articles from Probate & Property and Real Property, Probate and Trust Journal available to members on-line. It’s also a good idea to check out your state and local bar associations to see what they have on their web pages and whether any of it might be useful.
Law Firms, Accountants, Trust Companies, etc.
When looking for leads, don’t overlook the possibility that a general search will turn up something useful among the web pages of a law firm, accounting firm, trust company, financial planner, or other for-profit organization that either serves the legal market or offers services relevant to estate planning and estate administration, because many of them publish articles, “blogs” (i.e., “web logs” or on-line commentaries), and other kinds of free information on-line.
Now, “free” still has a cost, because you can’t be too sure how reliable the information might be, so it will require further research to confirm, but the writings of others that are on-line are often a good way to get pointers that will get you going in the right direction.