What is the difference between a lengthy metes and bounds property description, and a simple reference to a prior deed filed of record? Why does one property description take two pages, describing the length of each boundary, while other property descriptions are only one sentence long? Is one description more or less valid? The answer relates to back to the purpose of a legal description under Texas law.
The purpose of a legal description is to give enough information for a person familiar with the area to identify the specific tract of land. A property description is valid if it furnishes within itself, or by referencing another existing writing, a way to identify the land being conveyed with reasonable certainty. In some cases, this legal description can be stated very simply: “Lot 4, Block 8, Mineral Heights, City of Midland, Midland County, Texas.” However, large un-platted tracts of land usually require much more information to identify the specific tract being conveyed. A Deed that fails to describe a definite tract of land is void.
In practice, a valid property description can come in many forms. The need for a pages long property description can be avoided by “reference to a prior deed”; however, if the property description being referenced is defective, then so is any subsequent deed that relies on it.
Reference to Grantor’s Interest:
A conveyance of “all right, title and interest” in a County, or the State of Texas, is a valid legal description as of the date of the Deed. Additionally, Deeds conveying property described as “my property” (such as “my farm in Reeves County”) have been found to be sufficient if extrinsic evidence shows that the Grantor only owned one tract of land meeting the description of property.
Reference to Unrecorded Documents:
A Deed that conveys a tract by referencing an unrecorded document, such as an appraisal district tract plat, must take into account what the unrecorded document depicted at the time of the conveyance. Great care must be taken in relying on any such Deeds, as unrecorded documents change, are lost, or may not accurately reflect a tract of land. The important thing to remember is that when a tract is described by referencing an unrecorded document, that extrinsic evidence is required to prove what the tract conveyed was at the time of the Deed. It is important to note that any referenced instrument must be in existence at the time of the conveyance, or the description will fail.
Defects or Conflicts Within a Description:
Many times, a property description will describe a tract with errors such as an incorrect distance, conflicting acreage recitals, or bearings that describe a tract which does not have a closed shape when plotted on a map. When this happens, a Court will rely on an “order of dignity” within provided calls to determine the tract being conveyed:
1. Natural objects (rivers, etc.).
2. Artificial objects (marked trees, stone mounds, adjoinder calls, etc.).
3. Courses (bearings).
That is to say, a court will look to preferred portions of the description to form a complete image of the parcel of land which is conveyed by the otherwise defective Deed. For example, if a description describes a distance and course “to a steel pin,” where, in reality, the distance and course do not arrive at the pin, then the location of the steel pin will control over the conflicting distance or course description.
Texas Courts have ruled that the specification of acreage is the “least reliable data point” in a legal description. Accordingly, if a conveyance gives a description of land with reasonable certainty which conflicts with an acreage recital, then the acreage recital will be rejected.
Similarly, a Deed that conveyed “a 20 acre tract off the West end of [a larger 100 acre tract] has been found to be invalid as it “is not sufficient, standing alone, to determine where, or at what angle, …. the property was divided from the main part.” However, if a Deed conveys the “West 20 acres of [a larger 100 acre tract]” the exact location of the described 20 acres can be determined by an on the ground survey, thus the legal description is valid.
It is important to note that though the first Grantor may have intended to convey the same tract of land, the inability to identify the specific tract within the Deed, or through a reference to an existing writing, caused the description to fail.
Failure to provide a sufficient description will create defect in title that can usually only be cured through the use of the Court System – an expensive and unpredictable path. While Texas Courts will always attempt to give effect to the intent of the parties, a property description must provide a basis for the land to be identified on the ground with reasonable certainty. Other documents, including unrecorded documents, may be used to sufficiently locate a tract of land, but only if they have been properly referenced within the Deed.