In the world of trust and estates software, no package is all things to all users trying to perform a given task. So, when looking to buy software, focus on what works for you. To help with the process, I offer the Kelley Software Purchasing Checklist. Simply rate each of the program functions on a 1-to-10 scale, where:

  • bad = 0 points
  • okay = 5 points
  • good = 10 points

For each section, tally up the sub-score and get an average. If the average scores for the sections most material to your needs are:

  • above 7 = buy the software
  • above 4 = consider buying
  • below 4 = dump it
  1. LOOK AND FEEL

    Programs present very different appearances on the screen and varying degrees of difficulty in following the flow of the program. Get a demo or trial version of the program, take a test drive, and ask:

    • How easy is it to move from one component of the program to another? _____
    • Does the program clearly direct your activity on screen? _____
    • Is common data easily shared by program components? _____
    • Are the methods of data input clear? _____
    • Are the screens for data input readily accessible and clearly understandable? _____
    • Does the program lend itself to convenient what-if calculations? _____
    • How conveniently is printing directed? _____
    • Does the program include data export to, or import from, related programs or valuation services that you use? _____
    • Does the program automatically save data or is a separate save operation required? In other words, how well does the save function work for you? _____
    • How clear is the interrelationship of the data input and calculation results? _____
    • How well does the program display and document the derivation of the ultimate computations? _____

    Total of the above 11 items = _____ Average score =_____

  2. ONLINE HELP AND DOCUMENTATION

    To evaluate the “help system,” ask:

    • Does the program address help through the mix of written documentation, electronic documenttation and online help in a manner best suited to your personal operation of the program? _____
    • How comprehensive is the online help, and how relevant is it to your questions about operating the program? _____
    • Are relevant help topics “callable” from the screen or prompt where you are working (context-sensitive) in a convenient and useful manner? _____
    • Are the issues related to program activity addressed in enough detail to really help you with data entry? _____
    • To what degree is substantive tax or state law help available as part of the help system? _____
    • Is the tax and state law help effectively linked to the help topics discussing program operation? _____

    Taking a harder look at the “help” documentation, ask:

    • Is the operation of the program satisfactorily tracked and explained? _____
    • Are the tax and other rules necessary to an understanding of the flow of the program explained in enough detail for you? _____
    • Is the entry of data addressed prompt-by-prompt, and are the rules applicable to each screen, line or prompt needed for convenient decision making during program operation adequately explained? _____
    • Does the manual clearly and logically walk you through the program (as opposed to being complex and difficult to follow)? _____
    • Does the publisher send out a periodic newsletter or other operational information for the program, and how important is that to you? _____
    • Does the documentation extend to substantive law support and explanation? _____

    Total of the above 12 items = _____ Average score = _____

  3. USER SUPPORT, SECURITY AND UPDATES

    There will likely come a time in the operation of any program when you need support beyond online help and documentation. Check out the following:

    • Is customer support delivered in a manner best suited to the way you work (telephone, fax, email, etc.)? _____
    • Is there a charge for that support and how reasonable is the price? _____

    The mechanics of how the program is secured, licensed and updated are important to how well it works for you. Be sure to understand the following:

    • Are updates to the program issued regularly (good would be annually, with interim corrections and additions as needed to avoid unpredictable timing of updates)? _____
    • How reasonable is the charge for the updates? _____
    • Are interim corrections and program additions made between regular updates in a manner satisfactory to you? _____
    • Are the regular and interim program updates delivered in a manner convenient to you (through download from the publisher's website, mailing of CDs, etc.)? _____
    • Is the manner by which you are notified of the availability of regular and interim updates satisfactory? _____
    • Is the software security scheme adopted by the publisher workable for you or just annoying? (That is: Does each version time out at a given date after installation or at a given time? Is the entry of key codes required for each installation? Is online registration, or activation, required at the time of each installation? Is there a limit on the number of installations you may do?) _____
    • How is multiple use of the software licensed and is the cost reasonable? _____
    • Are the licensing restrictions suitable for the use you intend to make of the software (actually obtain and read the licensing agreement, if any)? _____

    Total of the above 10 items = _____ Average = _____

  4. REPORTS

    Examine the reports produced by the program for the following:

    • Are the reports the program produces clear and informative? _____
    • Do the manner, sequence and comprehensibility of presentation of the calculations supply what you need for internal review? _____
    • Are graphics or flowcharts used to illustrate the effect of the transaction(s) being planned, and how effective are they? _____
    • How does the mechanics of preparation of reports fit your needs. For example, are the reports canned by the program or does the program generate components that you may compile yourself? _____
    • Do the reports clearly demonstrate the flow and effect of the data entry and transactional calculations involved? _____
    • Do the reports supply effective approaches to donor or client communication? _____
    • Does the program have the ability to save reports in various formats? For example, Excel, text, PDF? _____

    Total of the above 7 items = _____ Average = _____

  5. CAPABILITY FOR NETWORK SUPPORT

    Network capable programs will typically support the Novell network and may support others. You should ascertain from the publisher of the program whether it will operate with the network you have in place. If you want to operate the program on your network, ask:

    • Is the program compatible with the network software and version you have? _____
    • How complete and helpful is the documentation for network installation? _____
    • Do you need professional assistance for network installation? _____
    • Is network operation by more than one user at a time permissible? _____
    • Does the program allow installation of the program and data files in a manner that works for you? In other words, are pro- gram files installed on the server or just the data files with program files installed on slave computers only? _____

    Total of the above 5 items = _____ Average = _____

  6. WEB-BASED SERVICES

    An increasing amount of “software” is being delivered through publishers' websites. Such web-based services have certain advantages, such as:

    • no software or updates to install — just to the web page you will be using;
    • no daily backups or system maintenance — data is stored online;
    • no in-house technical expertise required for installation or maintenance;
    • access 24 /7/365 to the system from anywhere, at any time, with a browser; and
    • useable by any number of users in one location, or at several locations, without a network.

    In evaluating web-based facilities, ask:

    • If you will be storing client data online with the service, are the publisher's provisions for the security of your data adequate? _____
    • Is context-sensitive online help available, and how important is that to you? _____
    • Does the publisher furnish a downloadable manual and how complete and useful is it for your purposes? _____
    • Does the service furnish telephone-based training and how comprehensive and helpful is it likely to be for you? _____
    • Are there continuous updates and corrections made to the online service? _____
    • Is the manner of pricing appropriate to such a service and does it fit your objectives for the service? _____

    Total of the above 6 items = _____ Average = _____

Bottomline

Although the prices of computer hardware continue to decline, the same is not true of software. Software packages tend to accrete from version to version and to increase in size, complexity and price. Obtain a demonstration of the program, run through this Kelley Software Purchasing Checklist and weigh your results against the initial price and cost of updates. Then make the purchase — or find another program that suits you better!

RESOURCES

For an excellent summary of the factors to consider in the selection of software see, “Picking the ‘Best’ Law Office Software,” by Jim Galloway, director, Oklahoma Bar Association Management Assistance Program, at www.okbar.org/members/map/articles/software.htm.

For a listing of trusts and estates-related software with links to the publisher's Websites see Donald H. Kelley, “T & E Software and Online Resources,” Trusts & Estates (January 2005) at p. 64. Trusts and Estates also maintains a computer software directory at buyersguide.trustsandestates.com/index.cgi?final_cat1=4&search_t ype=&search=search.

Trusts & Estates magazine presents a monthly e-newsletter, The Technology Review, by Donald H. Kelley — a connoisseur of the software and Internet resources wealth management advisors use to further their practices. 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 dhkelley@qwest.net.