P R O B A T E   &   P R O P E R T Y
March/April 2003
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Technology - Probate

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.

PDF for Lawyers

Sometime during the last few years, Adobe Acrobat and its “portable document format” (PDF) stopped being a solution in search of a problem and started appearing on the “must have” list of software for law firms. This column will explain the PDF format and why the Adobe Acrobat software can be so useful for law firms, with particular attention to the needs of estate and trust lawyers.

Overview of PDF

The principle of the “portable document format” developed by Adobe Systems Inc. ( www.adobe.com) is that users can read (and print) documents created by various kinds of software without owning a copy of that particular software. The Acrobat software accomplishes this by recording essential information about the fonts, lines, and graphics used to create the document, as well as the words and numbers themselves that appear in the document. The resulting file (usually using the extension “.pdf”) therefore contains all of the information needed to recreate the image of the document as it would be printed by the original software. Adobe gives away the “reader” software so that anyone can view the document, as well as print it.

It is important to understand that most PDF files are not pictures or images of documents like a TIF (or “TIFF,” for “tagged image file format”), PCX (“Paintbrush”), GIF (“graphic interchange format”), JPG (or “JPEG,” for “Joint Photographic Experts Group”), or BMP (Windows “bitmap”), but are more like a word processing file that contains the words and the information needed to display the words on the screen and the page. As a result, it is much smaller than an image file of the same document. Because the file contains the words themselves, and not images of the words, it is also possible to search for words and phrases, or cut and paste words or phrases into another document. (It is also possible to save an image file as a PDF file, but even with some file compression, the resulting PDF file will still be much bigger than a PDF file created directly from an application.)

Some applications (such as Corel WordPerfect) can save (or “print”) directly into a PDF file, without the user needing to purchase the Adobe Acrobat software. Nevertheless, most law firms wishing to create and manipulate PDF files will find it useful to purchase the Acrobat software.

Competing programs, such as Corel’s Envoy, provide the same functions with different file formats, but PDF has become the de facto standard. This column will focus on the functionality and uses of PDF and Adobe Acrobat.

Law Firm Uses of PDF

The major uses of PDF files can be summarized as follows:

Fillable Forms

Both the IRS and many other governmental agencies are now publishing tax and other forms in a “fillable” format that can be downloaded (or purchased on CD-ROM). By using the free “reader” software, users can type information directly into the form and print the completed form. (One caution—it is necessary to have the latest version of the reader to be able to save the form with the typed-in information.) In addition to tax forms, courts and agencies have made available cover sheets for court filings, probate pleadings, articles of incorporation, limited partnership declarations, and many other types of applications and forms in a “fillable” format.

Even if the PDF form is not fillable, a law firm with a copy of Acrobat can edit the form and make it fillable, so that a downloaded form can be modified, distributed within the firm, completed, and used much more easily. Finally, many publishers of document assembly software (such as HotDocs) are adding links from their programs to fillable PDF forms. It is therefore possible to complete PDF forms using information already in an estate planning or estate administration document drafting system.

Electronic Exchanges

The original purpose of PDF was to allow users to exchange readable versions of documents produced by different programs, and that function has become more important to the legal profession as more and more lawyers communicate electronically with both clients and co-counsel (or opposing counsel). Even though most law firms (and most clients) use either Microsoft Word or Corel WordPerfect, some firms (and people) still use one but not the other, an older version, or a different word processor, or have some other compatibility issue. Many times, it is easier to send out a PDF file for a client or co-counsel to review than it is to worry about (or even think about) compatibility issues. In addition, using PDF instead of word processing files ensures that clients or other lawyers cannot easily modify your documents without your knowledge.

Electronic Filing

Courts (including probate courts) are experimenting with electronic filing of pleadings, and the PDF file format is one of the most popular (and generally accepted) formats for filing electronic pleadings. Most law firms will have to invest in at least one copy of Adobe Acrobat to comply with the emerging standards for electronic filing with courts.

Internet Publishing

Sharing documents with the public at large as well as with clients and other lawyers has advantages, and PDF files may be superior to HTML web pages for publishing some kinds of documents.

A firm seeking to attract estate administration clients might want to publish commonly used probate forms for the benefit of those who might want to try to probate a will and administer an estate themselves, without a lawyer. Providing this kind of simple, basic, information is unlikely to lose any clients (do you really think that someone who is going to download a probate form is going to want to pay your fees?), but can increase the popularity or (and cross-links to) the firm’s web site, which might attract people with problems that cannot be solved with simple forms (which is where your firm comes in).

A firm might want to publicize a recent court victory by publishing the opinion of the court and the firm’s briefs, and it may be easier (and more effective) to “print” them as PDF files than to convert the documents to HTML format. A firm might want to publicize other recent developments, such as tax rulings or regulations, or legislation, for the benefit of its clients and the profession generally, and it may be easier to copy the official PDF versions of those rulings, regulations, or acts than to create HTML files.


In the same way that most lawyers liked to have accurate paper records of the documents that were mailed, signed, or filed, many lawyers now like to have accurate electronic records of the final versions of documents. Using PDF files has several advantages for this kind of electronic file-keeping or archiving:

•           A PDF file may be more stable and longer-lasting than a word processing file because the PDF file should still be readable and printable even after the firm has changed word processors, whether from one brand to another, or from an older version to a newer version.

•           A client file might be comprised of documents from many different sources, including word processors, scans of incoming documents, faxes, e-mails, spreadsheets, tax returns, tax projections, and graphics programs. All of those different kinds of files can be saved as PDF files, so only one kind of reader will be necessary to review the file in the future, regardless of what kind of information is needed.

•           Word processing files (and spreadsheet files) can be edited, and it is possible for the “file copy” of a word processing file to be altered accidentally, destroying the validity of the electronic document. A PDF makes a better “file copy” because it is more difficult to edit and so is less likely to be changed.

•           PDF files are often smaller than the word processing files or graphic files that they replace (or supplement).

Using PDFs as electronic “file copies” of client documents doespresent one problem: a document that is printed by a word processing program is almost never exactly the same as the PDF for the same document. Subtle differences in font, line, orpage sizes almost inevitably result in different line endings, page endings, and pagination. Therefore, if a firm wishes to keep electronic file copies of wills, trusts, and other outgoing documents, the best practice is to create the PDF file first, then print the paper copies from the PDF file and not the word processing program.


Adobe Acrobat and the PDF file format are proprietary but have become standards that are useful to estate lawyers and the legal profession generally. In planning for the evolving needs of law firms, lawyers should be considering Acrobat for fillable forms, electronic document exchanges with clients and other lawyers, electronic court filings, Internet publishing, and client document archiving.

Technology—Probate Editor: Daniel B. Evans, P.O. Box 27370, Philadelphia, PA 19118, dan@evans-legal.com.