Locke Lord QuickStudy: Legal Descriptions — Texas Supreme Court Holds Specific Controls Over The General

Locke Lord LLP
April 22, 2015
On March 20, 2015, the Texas Supreme Court in Doris Virginia McGregor Stribling et al. v. Millican DPC Partners, LP et al., No. 14-0500 (Tex. 2015), held that a metes and bounds description will prevail over a more general description in the same conveyance and reiterated a long list of interpretational maxims.  The opinion highlights the continuing need for complete and accurate specificity when preparing conveyancing documents and the unintended results that may occur when specificity is not achieved. 

Millican and McGregor were adjoining landowners in Brazos County.  There were two deeds in Millican’s chain of title: a 1945 deed and a 1973 deed.  The 1945 deed described, by metes and bounds, a 202 acre survey that included the 34.28 acre tract in dispute (Disputed 34.28 Acre Tract).  The 1973 deed conveyed three tracts and described the Disputed 34.28 Acre Tract inconsistently.  First, the 1973 deed listed nine smaller parcels and their respective acreages.  One of those nine parcels was the  202 acres tract containing the Disputed 34.28 Acre Tract.  Second, the deed made reference to the 1945 deed.   Finally, the 1973 deed additionally contained a metes and bounds description which did not include the Disputed 34.28 Acre Tract.

Both the 1972 deed descriptions and the acreage allegedly conveyed were inconsistent. When the acreage covered by the general description (which purported to include the Disputed 34.28 Acre Tract) was totaled, the acreage was 1,145.95 acres.  The  metes and bounds description in the 1973 deed, however, covered 1,167.203 acres.  Neither party claimed the 1973 deed was ambiguous and each asserted ownership.  If the 1973 deed included the Disputed 34.28 Acre Tract, Millican owned it; otherwise McGregor was the owner.

Citing prior cases, the Court held that “in case of a conflict, the more specific provisions will control over the general expressions which are worded as being applicable to the same land. [citing cases] . . . When the specific description is clear, there is ‘no necessity for invoking the aid of the general description [citing cases].’”

In reaching this conclusion, the Court referenced two cases, Southern Pine Lumber Co. v. Hart, and Cullers v. Platt. Each of these cases involved a general description purporting to convey more land than the metes and bounds description and in both, the metes and bound description controlled.  The Court concluded that “the metes and bounds description is more specific and therefore better indicates the parties’ intent.”  The Court, however, further held that where the metes and bounds description is incomplete (does not “close”) or defective, the Court will look “to the general description for the parties’ intent because the specific description was defective or incomplete.” 

In response to Millican’s claim that the 1973 conveyance was an attempted reservation of the Disputed 34.28 Acre Tract and should have been specifically described to be effective, the Court noted “. . . the question is not whether the 34.28 acre Tract was reserved from the conveyance, but whether it was included in the conveyance to begin with.  Specific reservations are necessary in some situations, but not for the metes and bound to control over a directly contrary general description.”

Dealing with the issue of whether reliance on the specific description rendered the general description meaningless, the Court noted:  “the general description – referring to previous deeds – remains a helpful tool for tracing title. [citing cases]… Nevertheless, we have never held that there was a clear intent for the general description to control when directly contrary metes and bounds clearly defined an area owned by the grantor.  Rather, the general description may be used to help interpret the specific description if it is ‘defective or doubtful, [citing cases] ….”

And in response to the maxim that deeds should be construed to grant the greatest estate, the Court held “the preference for the greater estate however, cannot overcome a clear and unambiguous specific description.”  The Court also discounted any conflict with the strip and gore doctrine: the “rule favoring the metes and bounds does not undermine, when applicable, the strip and gore doctrine, which under certain circumstances allows for a presumption that a relatively small and narrow strip of land omitted from the deed is still conveyed.”

In short, the metes and bounds description will control unless there is a defect in the description. If there is a defect, then, and only then, will a court resort to other interpretational maxims. 

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