Importance of Texas Land Descriptions
Contributor, Matt Royall
Every conveyance of real property in the State of Texas must contain a proper legal description of the property being conveyed. The Statute of Frauds requires that all conveyances of real property must be in writing and signed by the party to be charged. However, for a land sale contract to meet the requirements of the Statute of Frauds, it must also contain within the instrument, or by reference to another existing writing, enough information to identify the land being conveyed with reasonable certainly.
It is common that a land description will be in the form of a broad, global description such as all my land in Johnson County. Global or blanket descriptions of all the grantor’s real property wherever located in a specific city, county, or state are sufficient to satisfy the Statute of Frauds, even if other tracts are also specifically described. However, an examiner or landman must always be sure to distinguish between these global descriptions and catch-all clauses or Mother Hubbard clauses, which will not be effective descriptions standing alone.
The purpose of a legal description is to provide enough facts for a person familiar with the locality the means of identifying the land. This sounds very simple, but a defective legal description is one of the most frequent causes of title failure. Long-established Texas law outlines the sufficiency of legal descriptions, and while a court will always attempt to give effect to a transaction, applying those rules is not always simple.
As previously noted, the standard for a proper legal description is that it must furnish within itself, or by reference to another existing writing, the means or data to identify the particular land with reasonable certainty. What does this mean? This means that a legal description is sufficient when it contains facts that identify the property with reasonable certainty to a party familiar with the locality. This also means that the conveying instrument does not have to contain a full description of the property if it references another recorded instrument that contains a complete description.
While the intention of the parties concerning the identification of the land conveyed and its boundaries is determined from the face of the instrument, it is done so in light of the surrounding circumstances. However, a Texas Title Examiner must be careful in approving instruments relying on “surrounding circumstances;” such evidence may aid in identifying the location of land, but it cannot be used to provide the framework of the description. Stated another way, “[t]he rule is well settled that parol evidence cannot be introduced to vary or contradict the descriptive data of a deed. The descriptive words in an instrument should be given a liberal construction, in order that the writing may be upheld, and parol evidence is admitted to explain the descriptive words and to identify the land; but the instrument itself must contain a nucleus of description. The parol testimony must directly be connected with the descriptive data, and when more than this is required, the description is insufficient.” Smith v. Sorrelle, 126 Tex. 353, 358 (1935).
As with many issues in land titles, there are general rules but the application comes down to the specific facts of each case. Subtle differences in the description language can result in a valid transaction in one instance, while another is void. Texas has established its standard that the land description must identify the particular land with reasonable certainly, either directly or by reference. When drafting a conveyance, an individual must be aware of this standard and describe the premises in objective terms; best practices dictate that the description should generally reference a survey or prior deed conveyance. This belt-and-suspenders approach will ensure a valid conveyance by avoiding any ambiguity. Further, a Texas title examiner or landman must first remember to look at legal descriptions with a critical eye, searching for an ambiguity or shortcoming, or risk the oversight of a void conveyance in the chain of title.