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Doing Your Own Legal Research

There is often a viable alternative to hiring a lawyer to resolve legal questions that affect your estate planning documents: You can do your own legal research. Not only will you save some money, you will gain a sense of mastery over an area of law, generating confidence that will stand you in good stead should you have other legal problems.

Fortunately, researching living trusts and related estate planning issues is generally well suited to doing on your own. Often, you need only check the statutes of your state to find one particular provision.

warning  Resource. Nolo's website, at www.nolo.com, offers a section on estate planning that covers a range of topics including living trusts. You can also find links to state and federal statutes. Legal Research: How to Find & Understand the Law, by Stephen Elias and the editors of Nolo, gives instructions and examples explaining how to conduct legal research.

Finding Statutes in a Law Library

You can always find state statutes at a law library or, usually, at the main branch of a public library. Depending on the state, statutes are compiled in books called statutes, revised statutes, annotated statutes, codes or compiled laws. For example, the Vermont statutes are found in a series called Vermont Statutes Annotated, while Michigan's laws are found in two separate sets of books: Michigan Statutes or an alternate series called Michigan Compiled Laws. (The term "annotated" means that the statutes are accompanied by information about their history and court decisions that have interpreted them.) The reference librarian can point you toward the books you need.

After you've found the books, check the index for provisions dealing with the specific subject that concerns you -- for example, wills, revocable living trusts or powers of attorney. Generally, you will find what you want in the volume of statutes dealing with your state's basic civil or probate laws. Statutes are numbered sequentially, so once you get the correct number in the index, it will be easy to find the statute you need.

Once you find a law in the statute books, it's important to look at the update pamphlet in the back of the book (called the "pocket part") to make sure your statute hasn't changed or been repealed. Pocket parts are published only once per year, so brand new laws often have not yet made it to the pocket part. Law libraries subscribe to services and periodicals that update the statute books on a more frequent basis than the pocket parts. You can ask a law librarian to help you find the materials you need.

Finally, you may find summaries of relevant court cases immediately following the statute. (These are the annotations mentioned just above.) If so, you'll want to skim them. If a summary looks like it might help answer your question, read the full court case cited there. (Ask the librarian for help finding the case, or turn to the legal research resources listed above.)

Finding Statutes Online

All states have made their statutes available on the Internet. You can find them by visiting the legal research area of Nolo's website at www.nolo.com/legal-research/state-law.html. Choose your state to search or browse the statutes.

In addition, almost every state maintains its own website for pending and recently enacted legislation. If you hear about a proposed or new law and you want to look it up, you can use your state's website to find not only the most current version of a bill, but also its history. To find your state's website, open your browser and type in www.state.[your state's postal code].us. Your state's postal code is the two-letter abbreviation you use for mailing addresses. For example, NY is the postal code for New York, so to find New York's state website, type www.state.ny.us.

When you open your state's home page, look for links under "government." All states have separate links to their legislatures, and they offer many different ways to look up bills and laws. You can also find any state's legislature through the National Conference of State Legislatures at www.ncsl.org.

 

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