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.
Ten years ago, this editor’s March/April 2007 column outlined ways to “Automate Your Probate Practice.” Like the practice area itself, many of the same software programs and vendors still occupy the probate technology space. Change generally occurs slowly when discussing wills, trusts, and estates.
But, while neither the substantive laws nor the software systems have changed much during the past decade, the electronic filing systems of multiple states have facilitated and supported significant changes for probate practitioners and the public. This probate “anniversary” column will again use Florida as a sample jurisdiction because of this editor’s primary practice in the Sunshine State and his specialization in this area of law. Nonetheless, much of this commentary should assist those of you in other states, where you might be evaluating standardization of your state’s probate forms or whether to allow electronic filing of probate pleadings.
A Brief Survey of the History Preceding These Probate Innovations
This editor and every probate practitioner in Florida owe a tremendous debt to the late John Arthur Jones, who developed his extensive collection of probate forms that became part of Florida Lawyers Support Services, Inc. (www.flssi.org). Indeed, the December 2014 memorial tribute published by the Florida Bar’s Real Property, Probate & Trust Law Section referred to Mr. Jones as “the de facto dean of Florida probate and trust attorneys.” Mr. Jones chaired that section of the Florida Bar in 1980–81, when several other prominent practitioners and he founded the FLSSI nonprofit organization to maintain and publish standard sets of probate and guardianship forms that are still used today by thousands of Florida lawyers.
Several years earlier, many of the same prominent probate practitioners were instrumental in Florida’s 1974 adoption of its version of the Uniform Probate Code. The National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws, now known as the Uniform Law Commission, promulgated the UPC in 1969. According to the ULC’s web site, 17 states have adopted the original UPC or one of its revised versions (www.uniformlaws.org/LegislativeFactSheet.aspx?title=Probate%20Code), and many other states have modeled their probate codes on the UPC or borrowed some of its provisions.
The combination of the Florida Probate Code, the ubiquitous FLSSI probate forms, and dedicated probate divisions and judges in more populous Florida counties propelled the probate bar to the top of the Florida Supreme Court’s list to create, test, and implement a modern electronic filing (e-filing) system across the Florida courts system. The Florida Supreme Court began its rulemaking efforts on e-filing in 1979. Yet there was no true statewide e-filing system in the Sunshine State until the Florida legislature mandated a transition in 2008. On July 1, 2009, the Florida Supreme Court set e-filing standards for the state, including an electronic portal (e-portal) to process all filings.
In summer 2009, the Florida Courts Technology Commission determined that the probate division of the Florida circuit courts would serve as the leader of a new statewide e-filing system. A work group consisting of clerks of court, court administrators and chief technology officers, probate judges, and attorneys who specialize in probate law defined and compiled the data elements to be captured in all filings in the probate division. The probate work group successfully piloted the e-filing system, which was then rolled out to other Florida cases and courts.
Understanding the context of these developments is important because arguably Florida’s e-filing system enjoyed more rapid success because of Florida’s developed probate laws, its standardized probate forms, and its probate judiciary. Federal courts clearly preceded state courts in e-filing developments, but Florida’s pioneering role in its statewide e-filing system was made possible by an area of law that generally does not change quickly or substantially. Florida’s e-filing system is still a work in progress, as this column will discuss within the probate context. Nevertheless, a Florida probate practitioner may now practice in any of the state’s 67 counties with a basic computer, some type of scanning device (from a smartphone to a dedicated scanner), and an Internet connection.
Forms Are Fundamental
As noted in the 2007 column, several other states have created standardized probate forms. The increasing number of states that make their standardized probate forms available at no charge include the following:
- Alaska: http://courts.alaska.gov/shc/probate/probate-forms.htm;
- Arkansas: https://courts.arkansas.gov/forms-and-publications/court-forms/probate-division/forms;
- California: http://www.courts.ca.gov/forms.htm?filter=DE (under “Probate—Decedents Estates” using the pull-down menu);
- Colorado: https://www.courts.state.co.us/Forms/Forms_List.cfm?Form_Type_ID=143;
- Connecticut: http://www.ctprobate.gov/Pages/Probate-Court-Forms.aspx;
- Georgia: http://gaprobate.gov/
- Maine: https://www.mainepro bate.net/downloadforms.html;
- Maryland: http://registers.maryland.gov/main/forms.html;
- Massachusetts: http://www.mass.gov/courts/forms/pfc/pfc-upc-forms-generic.html;
- Michigan: http://courts.mi.gov/administration/scao/forms/pages/probate-court-index.aspx;
- New Hampshire: http://www.courts.state.nh.us/probate/pcforms/forms.htm#estate;
- New York: https://www.nycourts.gov/forms/ surrogates/probate.shtml;
- Ohio: https://www.supremecourt.ohio.gov/legalresources/rules/superintendence/probate_forms;
- Rhode Island: http://sos.ri.gov/divisions/Business-Portal/forms/probate-forms;
- South Carolina: http://www.judicial.state.sc.us/forms/ (under “Search #1: Forms by Type” > “Probate Court” using the pull-down menu);
- Vermont: https://www.ver montjudiciary.org/master pages/Court-Forms-Probate.aspx; and
- Wisconsin: https://www. wicourts.gov/forms1/circuit/formcategory.jsp?Category=26.
Other states offer a few official probate forms. There also are unofficial collections of state-specific forms, such as the Washington (state) probate forms posted by attorney Richard Wills (www.probate-form.com).
Automating Your Probate Practice—A Brief Updated Tour
Even if you practice in a state where you can e-file all of your probate cases, you should consider options to assemble the probate pleadings that you need to file, particularly routine documents such as petitions, consents, waivers, and proposed orders. Automating your own probate forms is not as challenging as automating your own wills and trusts drafting system. Even so, you still need a relatively strong familiarity with programming in HotDocs, GhostFill, or another document assembly platform. This editor still sees this option as less desirable, not only because of the initial time involved in programming but also because of the maintenance required to update the system.
Much like the variety of will and trust drafting systems, you may choose among several automated probate systems. There are far more Internet-based systems nowadays, although you may still purchase a stand-alone application that might not impose a time limitation in terms of the license (rare, but still available). Some systems also produce tax returns and forms or integrate with other systems that do, although this anniversary column is primarily dedicated to the probate portions of such systems.
Several popular probate systems in Florida are available for other states as well, listed here in alphabetical order. You should contact each vendor directly about pricing, details, and scheduling a demonstration of the systems in which you are interested.
Collyer’s Legal Software (www.collyerslegal.com). David Collyer’s Florida probate system, which runs on HotDocs, has been available since 1989. His company still sells the non-automated FLSSI probate forms in word processing formats, however.
The Collyer probate system includes a “Pleading Check List” and a “Critical Date Check List” and facilitates the assembly of sets of necessary pleadings. The system can handle an unlimited number of creditors and beneficiaries. It also can calculate the inventory and the accounting for the estate administration.
EstateWorks (www.estateworks.com). This editor has more experience using the EstateWorks system than any other automated probate system. EstateWorks uses an Inter net-based version of HotDocs to assemble your probate pleadings and numerous other documents. The EstateWorks system is available in three editions: ProbatePlus, TrueSet tlement, and Enterprise.
EstateWorks’s TrueSettlement system includes a checklist-driven workflow process that you can control and monitor. You can create and assign tasks, track deadlines, and create notes for a particular file or matter. Financial assets can be tracked at an individual level, and the system interfaces with standard valuation and 706 accounting packages.
The “lighter weight” edition of EstateWorks, ProbatePlus, includes all of the document assembly features, with reduced practice management capabilities. ProbatePlus interfaces with the Lawgic drafting system and probably with most HotDocs-based drafting systems as well.
TrueSettlement and ProbatePlus currently assemble probate forms for Connecticut, Florida, Massachusetts, and New York.
ProDoc (www.prodoc.com/ products/floridaprobate.asp). ProDoc remains one of the most popular probate systems in Florida. ProDoc also offers systems for California and Texas.
ProDoc operates on the Westlaw Doc & Form Builder platform to produce documents for the user. It has been some time since this editor used ProDoc. Based on this editor’s last use, ProDoc provides relatively easy navigation and data collection. ProDoc will assemble the FLSSI probate forms and produce inventories and accountings, all of which are available via the “Probate PowerPack” offered by Thomson Reuters.
Forms Workflow (formerly U.S. Court Forms) (http://www.forms workflow.com). The Forms Workflow system is similar to other “software as a service” (SaaS) offerings such as EstateWorks. You can download the forms in Microsoft Word or in a fillable Adobe PDF format.
The Forms Workflow system continues to offer flexible subscriptions. You can pay per document or subscribe for unlimited use of a particular library of forms. Like ProDoc, Forms Workflow offers a broad range of legal forms for numerous practice areas in addition to probate law.
Toward the Probate Panacea
Although the probate systems mentioned above and others can increase the efficiency of your probate practice, this editor still is not aware of a commercially available probate system that guides users from the beginning stage of an estate administration to its closure. This editor would prefer systems that produce “bundles” of forms at each stage of the proceedings based on your responses. As noted, the Collyer system will produce the initial pleadings but does not have the same functionality for other stages of the probate proceeding. This approach is still on the editor’s wish list.
Reusable answer files (templates) and integration with major case or practice management systems (including rules-based calendaring) are also still on that list, but the other area that presents challenges for the modern probate practitioner is e-filing. Florida has made significant strides in its e-filing system, but probate cases—the initial work group that paved the way for the rest of the system—are not necessarily uniform. For example, some counties do not offer expansive choices for probate filings, such as the various consent and waiver forms and standard proposed orders.
In addition, some counties still require the physical filing of original wills and certified copies of death certificates with the appropriate clerk’s office. This rule is logical because of Florida’s requirement that original wills be deposited by any custodian holding the document. Despite this surprising rule, some counties no longer require the deposit of original wills with the clerk’s office.
There will always be room for improvement, even in the centuries-old area of probate law. Software developers will likely add the additional features above to automated probate systems. E-filing will continue to expand and improve as well. This editor hopes that you will use some of these suggestions to raise the probate bar in your own jurisdiction—or perhaps accomplish something that all of us can use.
The probate practice has witnessed substantial developments during the past ten years. Far more standard forms are available today. Automated probate systems can improve your efficiency and will continue to evolve, especially with the prevalence of Internet-based systems. E-filing is imperfect, but it has greatly improved the probate practitioner’s ability to cover more area for his or her clients. With predictions of the baby boomer generation decreasing from 75 million to an estimated 16.5 million by mid-century, perhaps you should revisit your probate practice and evaluate ways to expand or improve it. n
Collyer’s Legal Software & Services,LLC
850 Cynthia Drive
Titusville, FL 32780
EstateWorks Systems LLC
145 Lincoln Road, Suite 101B
Lincoln, MA 01773
962 Coronado Boulevard
Universal City, TX 78148
c/o American LegalNet, Inc.
16133 Ventura Boulevard, Suite 264
Encino, CA 91436