For information, many trusts-and-estates professionals rely on commercial tax research services. The strengths of these services are their search capabilities, the scope and depth of their content, and the quality of their expert analysis and commentary. But sometimes you can accomplish certain search goals more easily with generic, free search engines, such as Google. Of course, these search engines are no substitute for commercially available products and services. But they are quick, convenient and practical.
There's an abundance of trusts-and-estates related material (of variable quality) on the Internet. Despite the hodgepodge of information, some generic search engines -- with their powerful indexing facilities -- are now sophisticated enough to produce relevant, specialized results.
Though I'm focusing here on Google, it's not the only act in town. Yahoo! rivals Google in scope, relevance ranking and useful features. Also, Twingine searches both Google and Yahoo!, presenting the results on a single screen. And MSN Search has a large database and a relevance ranking that sometimes offer results the others don't.
There also are metasearch engines, like those listed at Wikipedia, which search multiple search sources and cover different topical areas, such as accountancy, business and legal. Some metasearch engines give users the top search results from search engines like Google, Yahoo!, and Windows Live. Though the metasearch engines enable you to sweep through large bodies of data with a broad brush, they are sometimes overly inclusive.
Here are a few tips to increase your search efficiency:
Search terms -- basic. By default, Google treats your search phrase as having AND connectors, so you do not need to use them. To confine your search to an exact phrase, place it in quotes. Be sure that you spell the words correctly; you can't count on Google to catch a mispelled word, though it often does.
Search terms -- boolean. Google can do searches with boolean connectors. In addition to the default AND connector, you may use the OR connector, such as GRAT OR GRUT (the OR must be in caps), as opposed to the AND connector in GRAT AND GRUT.
Wording your search -- guidance. Yahoo! maintains a Search Tips page with useful suggestions for wording searches. The Essentials of Google Search page offers practical guidance on searches and search terms.
Narrowing your search. Google Advanced Search and Yahoo! Advanced Web Search let you search all words, any of the words, or exact phrases. It also allows you to search by excluding certain words. But that's not all.
The links at the top of the screen enable you to search by images, news, scholarly articles, blogs and more. The "Advanced Search" function enables you to search not only by keyword, but also by language, region and date. The Google Advanced Search page even lets you confine your search to specific file formats, such as PowerPoint (.ppt) or Excel (.xls). For example, a search for "GRAT GRUT" (without quotes) confined to PowerPoint produces the Baldwin Management Company slideshow comparing GRATs and GRUTs.
Definitions. In both Yahoo! and Google, preceding a word or exact search phrase (one in quotes) with the word "definition" (without quotes) will confine the results to definitions of the word or phrase. In Google, searching the word and "definition" (without quotes) brings up both Web pages with definitions of the search term and Google's "Web Definitions" page. In Yahoo!, the first item that appears in the search for a legal search term is the Law.com legal dictionary definition.
Finding a recently searched Web page. If you are looking for a page you recently viewed, you can access search to pages viewed within a specified time frame by using Google or Yahoo! Advanced Search. Most browsers also have features that enable you to easily access sites from your browsing history.
Periodic email delivery of search results. With Google Alerts, you can order daily delivery of search results based on the search terms you enter. An example is "estate tax repeal."
For convenience, consider adding the Google Toolbar to the address bar of your Internet Explorer browser. There also is a Google Toolbar for the Mozilla Firefox browser.
More Search Guidance
The Virtual Chase, a research tool for legal professionals, includes "Tips for Conducting Internet Research," and the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel Web site links to additional tips and suggestions for using Google.
More generally, Diana Botluk's "Strategies for Online Legal Research: Determining the Best Way to Get What You Need" and Jerry Lawson's "Extras -- Internet Legal Research Bibliography" links to resources on Web searching and research techniques and to Jan Bissett's and Margi Heinen's "Reference from Coast to Coast: Stalking and Finding the Full-Text Article." Both of these resources are on the LLRX.com Web site.
Researching With Search Engines
With generic search engines, you can find both primary materials, such as tax laws, as well as regulations and secondary materials, such as outlines and slideshows on a given topic.
Finding primary materials. Google is good at finding primary materials, such as the text of court cases, rulings and other Internal Revenue Service publications, based on a search of the title or case name. Here are some examples:
Searching for "Rev. Rul. 2006-26" (concerning the conditions under which an individual retirement account (IRA) or other qualified plan distribution made payable to a marital trust will qualify for the qualified terminable interest property marital deduction) brings up the IRS Web page with the text of that ruling.
Entering "200247001" brings up as the first result the original text of Technical Advice Memorandum 200247001, holding that IRAs payable to the owner's estate may not receive an estate tax valuation discount for either built-in income tax or lack of marketability.
You may also search for primary materials through state tax departments and other government Web sites. Suppose your client is thinking of acquiring ranch land in Nebraska and wants to know whether Nebraska has a state estate tax. A Google search for "Nebraska state estate tax" will produce the Nebraska Revenue Department summary of the state inheritance tax, as well as the Nebraska Estate Tax Return, with the repeal of the state estate tax for deaths after Jan. 1, 2007. This gives you fast and easy results without having to find -- and wade through -- the Nebraska Department of Revenue Web site.
Finding secondary materials. Searching the Internet for secondary materials is a little like trying to find something in that pile of papers and magazines on the corner of your desk. Though the results are not always ranked in the order that would be most helpful to you, you will often be surprised by what comes up.
For example, a Google search of "charitable gifts tax benefits" produces (among other materials) "Conrad Teitell's Guide to Tax Benefits for Charitable Gifts" from the June 2007 issue of Trusts & Estates magazine and Charity Navitagor's summary on the Tax Benefits of Giving Web site.
Sometimes, when looking for secondary sources, you may want to go to the Google Book Search page, which searches for all books registered with Google. A search for "trusts and estates" will bring up over 1,000 titles when you search with quotes and over 5,000 titles when you search without quotation marks.
As with any search engine, the searcher must carefully evaluate the content for reliability. Materials published solely on the Internet are not filtered for accuracy, as is more often the case with print publications. But Google searches are not for laypeople to rely on any more than using online will kits should be. And, quite frankly, most lay people would be better off consulting a professional advisor than the Internet.
To assist you in evaluating the reliability of secondary materials found on the Internet, visit the University of Wisconsin's "Consider the Source: Resources for evaluating information." The page links to "Ten Cs for Evaluating Internet Resources," which takes into account such factors as the content, credibility and context of the resources you are evaluating. Suggested elements to consider include: (1) the author's background and qualifications, (2) the editorial or review process the materials went through, and (3) the cited sources upon which the materials are based.
Consider experimenting with Google and other generic Internet search engines when looking for T&E documents and resources. It may not only save you time, but may also lead you to some helpful resource materials.
Trusts & Estates magazine is pleased to present the monthly Technology Review by Donald H. Kelley -- a respected connoisseur of software and Internet resources wealth management advisors use to further their practices.
Kelley is a lawyer living in Highlands Ranch, Colo. and is of counsel to the law firm of Kelley, Scritsmier & Byrne, P.C. of North Platte, Neb. He is the co-author of Intuitive Estate Planner Software (Thomson - West 2007). He has served on the governing boards of the American Bar Association Real Property, Probate and Trust Section and the American College of Tax Counsel. He is a past regent and past chair of the Committee on Technology in the Practice of the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel.
Trusts & Estates has asked Kelley to provide his unvarnished opinions on the tech resources available in the practice today. His columns are edited for readability only. Send feedback and suggestions for articles directly to him at [email protected].