How Land is Identified in a Deed
There are several ways the deed may legally describe the land: meets and bounds, sections and townships, and recorded lot numbers are among them. They are described in detail here.
Metes and bounds: Describing with direction and distance
A metes and bounds legal description begins by specifying some identifiable point of beginning on the ground, referred to as a monument. This starting point may be a natural monument, like a tree, or an artificial monument, like a road or a stake placed by a surveyor. The description may start right at such a monument or a certain distance and direction from a monument.
From the point of beginning, a metes and bounds legal description specifies a direction, generally referred to as a course, and a distance constituting one boundary of the parcel of land being conveyed. Courses are generally expressed as deflections from north and south.
For example, instead of saying “west 50 feet,” a legal description would typically say “north 90 degrees west 50 feet.” Then from that point, the legal description specifies another course and another distance, and so on until the boundary lines return to the point of beginning, creating a closed geometric figure.
Sometimes a metes and bounds description has errors. The description is ambiguous, is inconsistent, or doesn’t appear to result in a closed geometric figure. In such cases, courts have to try to figure out what the parties intended. Extrinsic evidence may clarify the boundaries of the land that the parties intended to convey.
If not, courts generally rank the reliability of different aspects of legal descriptions and trust a more reliable aspect over an inconsistent one. Here’s the usual ranking of reliability:
Artificial monuments, including surveyors’ markers
Boundaries of adjacent tracts of land
If a legal description says “north 45 degrees east 130 feet to a fence corner post” and the corner post is actually north 40 degrees east 135 feet, the court will conclude that the course and distance (rather than the reference to the fence corner post, an artificial monument) are in error. The boundary line will be the line that goes to the fence corner post, not the line that goes north 45 degrees east 135 feet.
Government Survey System: Designating sections and townships
The Government Survey System is a federal land survey system that has been applied to most of the land added to the United States since the system was adopted in 1785. It divides the land into square townships. A township, which is 6 miles on each side, is divided into 36 square-mile sections.
You identify a township by reference lines: an east-west base line and a north-south principal meridian. Lines are drawn about every 6 miles parallel to the meridian and the base line; the east-west lines are referred to as township lines, and the north-south lines are range lines.
So a township is identified by specifying how many townships it is north or south of the base line and how many ranges it is east or west of the principal meridian. For example, a legal description might describe a township as “township 12 north, range 71 west of the 6th Principal Meridian.”
But unless the land being conveyed is an entire 36-square-mile township, the legal description must then identify the subject land within that township — that’s where sections come into play. Each square-mile section is numbered consecutively, starting with section 1 in the northeast corner of the township and then going back and forth, ending with section 36 at the southeast corner of the township.
So the legal description can identify the relevant square-mile section simply by the section’s number within the identified township.
Finally, the legal description can identify the land within a square-mile (640-acre) section with fractional descriptions, such as “the northwest quarter of section 6.” Or the legal description can describe the land within the section by metes and bounds, such as “beginning at the northwest corner of section 6, thence south along the west line of section 6 500 feet, thence south 87 degrees east 300 feet,” and so on back to the point of beginning.
Putting these elements of the description together, a simple legal description using the Government Survey System might go like this: “The south half of the northwest quarter of section 6, township 12 north, range 71 west of the 6th Principal Meridian.”
Subdivision plat: Referring to recorded lot numbers
A subdivision plat is a map of a subdivision approved by the local government and recorded in the local government’s real property records that are open to the public. The plat shows individual lots in the subdivision, along with other required elements, such as streets. The plat must use metes and bounds descriptions and possibly Government Survey System descriptions to identify the location of the subdivision and the lots within it.
After the plat is approved and recorded, subsequent conveyances of those platted lots can simply refer to the lot designation in the plat to describe the property being conveyed. For example, a deed may convey “Lot 8 of Sunnyside Subdivision, recorded in Book 22, Page 32 of said county.”
Other land descriptions
Legal descriptions may include some other approaches. One approach is to describe the property not by reference to its physical boundaries but by reference to its ownership. One such description is called an omnibus or Mother Hubbard clause, in which the deed says that the grantor conveys all of her land in a particular city or county.
You obviously can’t tell what land that is just from the deed. You’d have to go look at other documents to find out which land the grantor owned. Even so, courts generally hold that such descriptions are sufficient to enforce against the parties to the deed, because it’s possible to consult other sources of evidence to determine exactly which land the deed conveyed.
Another descriptive approach is to describe a portion or fraction of a described parcel of land. Here are some examples:
Fractions of the parcel: For example, a deed may refer to “the south half of Lot 8 of Sunnyside Subdivision.” Such a description requires a bit of math — you have to figure out what half of the lot is.
When the parcel is square or rectangular, that’s easy. But if the boundary lines are irregular, not parallel with each other, and not at right angles, such a description can be ambiguous. And if the deed doesn’t specify the location of the fraction within the larger described parcel, a court may hold that it simply can’t figure out what the parties intended and therefore that the deed is void.
For example, a deed that conveys “half of Lot 8” would probably be void because you can’t tell which half the deed conveys — unless a court concludes that the parties intended to create a tenancy in common, with each party owning an undivided half share of Lot 8.
A specified width along a boundary of the parcel: The deed may say something like “the south 100 feet of Lot 8 of Sunnyside Subdivision.”
Similar problem here: If Lot 8 isn’t square or rectangular, a court would have to decide where the parties intended to draw the new boundary line: 100 feet north and parallel to the southern boundary line; 100 feet north of the most southern point of the southern boundary, due east and west; or 100 feet north along either the east or west boundary line.
*Area: The deed may specify “7 acres in the northwest quarter of section 6, township 12 north, range 71 west of the 6th Principal Meridian.” A quarter of a section is 160 acres, so a deed with such a description is probably void unless the deed also contains some indication of how to locate which 7 acres the deed conveys.
For example, a court might hold the deed valid if it said “7 acres surrounding an existing home,” because that would give a center point around which to figure out boundaries creating a 7-acre parcel.