Maryland Boosts Efficiency Of Estate Settlements

Maryland Boosts Efficiency Of Estate Settlements<@VM>Resistance to Change<@VM>On the Web

Jorge Diaz

By Jon William Toigo



The state of Maryland has made great strides in handling wills and estates over the past few years by installing client-server-based document management systems. Now county registries are preparing for their next big step: making these records accessible to the public over the Internet.

The switch to client-server-based systems was the first major improvement to Maryland's will registries since the local agencies began installing microfilm systems in the 1980s to handle the flood of paper documents.

In most states, the disposition of estates requires submitting numerous, multipaged forms and supporting documentation to a register of wills. The register's office handles paperwork filing in accordance with statutory guidelines, facilitates probate processes and may assist in collecting inheritance taxes.

Patricia Dauenhauer, former register of wills for Montgomery County, Md., said her office was buried in paper until it converted to a microfilm solution in the early 1990s.

At the same time, Montgomery County automated the process by installing a Hewlett-Packard mainframe to help manage the records.

"That was a partial solution," she said. With bulky paper microfilmed and moved to archives, the problem of access remained, Dauenhauer said. The original HP solution provided no automated means for interested individuals, including family members, lawyers, creditors and others, to access decedent files without a clerk's assistance.

"We are dealing with public records that must be accessible to any interested parties," she said. On any day, the office was receiving visits from trial lawyers, historians and title examiners who wanted to know whether there were any inheritance tax liens against property, and even people searching for heirs.

For each request, she said, a staff member had to locate the file, find the associated microfilm, assist the end user in operating the film reader, then return the film after use. But responding to the public's data access requests in real time was becoming impossible, she said.

To solve the problem, the Registers Automation Steering Committee, a group representing the state's county registrars, issued a request for proposals for a work flow and document management imaging solution. The Maryland Comptroller of the Treasury assisted in the procurement and serves as agent for the contract.

Vredenburg of Reston, Va., received a $1.4 million contract in August 1996 to provide its solution in all 24 jurisdictions (23 counties and Baltimore city). Losing bidders for the two-year contract were Gulf Computers Inc., Baltimore; BNB Information and Imaging Management, Upper Marlboro, Md.; and Dynatech Integrated Systems, Columbia, Md., said John Salmon, contract officer for the Comptroller of the Treasury.

Each register of wills office paid for its own system implementation, according to Vinnie Lee, assistant director for office systems with the Comptroller of the Treasury in Annapolis, Md.

There were few technical specifications in the request for proposal: The system would use off-the-shelf software and operate on existing 10BaseT Ethernet local area networks, Lee said.

"They did not want custom-coded software because of maintenance and upgrade costs. They did want a modular package that would enable them to add capabilities over time," she said. Essentially, they described an electronic document management requirement using a standard Ethernet network, she said. Vredenburg delivered a solution using a client-server architecture based on its HighView document management system.

Dauenhauer's Montgomery County office was the pilot site. Vredenburg's VITGroup deployed its HighView document management system on a Microsoft NT Server, and also configured a number of Windows 95 PC client systems, for a 45-day site test commencing in October 1996. The solution featured workstations dedicated to scanning and indexing incoming documents and others tasked for public access.

Jorge Diaz, director of sales for Vredenburg's VITGroup, said scanning and indexing workstations were configured to mimic work flow procedures in the office. Once received, paper documents are forwarded to a batch scan workstation whose operator scans the paper documents and places their electronic images into a temporary database. These files are then accessed by an indexing workstation user who keys data from the electronic image into a SQL Anywhere database form.

The electronic image is stored and cross-referenced to the database file, so the data and the document image can be located and retrieved readily.

Public access workstations — there are four in the Montgomery County Register of Wills office — enable the searching of records based on decedent name, case number, estate number and address and provide the ability to print documents on a fee-per-page basis, Dauenhauer said.

Successful testing led to implementing the new system in Montgomery County in early 1997, she said. Rollout of identical systems to the other counties was accomplished by year's end.

The market for image processing systems in state and local government is growing at a rate of 19 percent annually, said Lesley Kao, senior analyst for G2R Inc., a Mountain View, Calif., research firm.

"As agencies begin to be buried in paper, the need for image-processing-based records management solutions is growing, and so is the market," she said.

Recently, a group of vendors, including FileNet, IBM, Microsoft, Novell, Oracle, Powersoft, QCSI Net and Sybase, won a $50 million image processing contract from New York's Worker Compensation Board, Kao said. "West Virginia has also recently made a large image processing system award for its employment department," she said.

Spending by state and local government on image processing technology totaled $802.9 million in 1998, Kao said.

The largest percentage of spending was for records management applications (32.3 percent). Other applications included fingerprint imaging for biometric security applications (19.8 percent), permit and licensing applications (16.8 percent), case tracking (13.8 percent) and claims management (10.4 percent).
Moving from a paper-driven process to a client-server document management solution occurred more smoothly than expected, Lee said.

"Some counties had been doing everything with pen and paper for hundreds of years, and they preferred it that way. Evolving to an electronic world came easier for some than others," Lee said.

For counties like Montgomery, the transition was evolutionary rather than revolutionary, said Chris Allen, deputy state archivist with the Maryland State Archives in Annapolis. Montgomery County already had a LAN and a case management system, he said.

Evolving to an integrated document management system went smoothly as a result of "some pretty thoughtful planning and some retrospective experience" with computer and network technology, he said.

Dauenhauer said she was most concerned about how the public would view the new system. Many were not comfortable with computers, but over time "they have grown to love the system," she said.

The initial client-server system deployment fostered increased interest in other technical innovations, she said. In late 1997, the Comptroller of the Treasury awarded a three-year contract extension valued at $1.3 million to Vredenburg to integrate Montgomery County's existing case management system with the new HighView system and to provide other management services.

The integrated solution means clerks can access documents and images from either the HighView system interface or from their older and more familiar case management system using simple search criteria, according to Vredenburg's Diaz.

"As part of the extension/modification, Vredenburg also deployed Microsoft's Systems Management Server to enable them to upgrade the software deployed in all of the counties and to troubleshoot the servers and workstations in every county via a dial-up line," Lee said.

This maintenance provision enables lower cost of ownership for the new system, Lee said. It also "eliminates the need for somebody to drive out to every county to load software or perform maintenance."

"Overall," Dauenhauer said, "the new system has provided a way to do our jobs more efficiently. We haven't quantified the benefit, but the system enables us to do a good job with a bare minimum of staff by reducing the time for searching for microfilm. We are able to deliver a more efficient public service."
Dauenhauer, who was succeeded by Joseph Griffin in the Montgomery County Register of Wills office at the start of 1999, said work is proceeding on the next client-server evolution within the Maryland Register of Wills.

"We want to establish one Web site to access the records of all 24 offices," she said. That project is still in the formative stage.

The idea of using the most ubiquitous client around, the Web browser, to access a central repository of wills registry data, holds appeal for deputy state archivist Allen.

"Statewide access to a centralized repository of wills data is a good goal," he said. "Last year, we began the process by establishing a Web site for the registers under our state archives [mantle]. For now, the site is pretty static and provides names and addresses, directions to offices, instructions for filing and so forth. There is a lot of interest in enhancing the site to provide a statewide estate docket management and tracking system."

Lee agreed with the premise but said obstacles persist. A system is needed to migrate and update records in the central repository before online, real-time access would be possible, she said.

"We might be able to start with closed cases, though," Lee said. "We expect to begin testing a Web-based client-server access system with one county's closed-case data next year. Closed cases are of great interest to genealogists who are researching family trees."

To Lee, the real challenge, given the success of the client-server system, is to complete the document management solution by eliminating paper and microfilm records in favor of electronic images.

However, state law still requires the maintenance of historical records in one of these forms, creating added expense for microfilm production and for storage space, she said.

"Right now, after a county office scans a document and adds it to its database, another station is used to create a microfilm image of the document using the same electronic image for filing at the state archives. The registers are still thinking about a plan to eliminate this step."

Another stumbling block is the state law that requires certification of actual documents, Allen said.

"With paper, that's easy. The paper gets stamped and touched at every step of the process," Allen said. "With electronic document images, we will need to come up with another way to certify document authenticity."

The Registers Automation Steering Committee now is looking at digital signatures and digital certificates, he said. Discussions are still in the early stages, officials said.

The movement of Maryland Register of Wills to a client-server-based document management solution is in line with the mainstream of business, according to the Delphi Group of Boston.

In a 1998 survey of 350 document management system users, Delphi found that 19 percent were providing client access to their systems via the World Wide Web exclusively, 33 percent were using client-server systems with Web accessibility, and 27 percent used client-server systems without Internet-based accessibility. The other 21 percent used a mixture of groupware, peer-to-peer LAN/work group and other solutions.

Dauenhauer is proud of the accomplishments of the Montgomery County Register of Wills office during her watch. With more time, and a continued record of demonstrated performance, the integrity of document management systems will be above question, she said.

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