What is a Legal Description of Real Estate?
A legal description is a written description of a real estate that is specific enough to uniquely identify it as distinct from all other properties. A proper legal description serves as the foundation for transferring real estate and is required in deeds, mortgages, and other legal documents.
How to Add a Legal Description to a Property Deed
When preparing a new deed to real estate, it is best to get the legal description from the most recent deed to the property. Using the prior deed as the source of the legal description provides several legal safeguards:
- Clear chain of title. The most important reason to use the legal description from the prior deed is to ensure that the property being transferred is the same as the property that was received. Using the legal description from the previous deed ensures consistency in the conveyance of the property and helps maintain a clear chain of title. This consistency can help avoid disputes and potential title issues that may arise due to discrepancies in property descriptions.
- Consistency and specificity. A legal description from the previous deed is designed to uniquely identify a specific parcel of land, regardless of any changes in street names, addresses, or property boundaries. Property addresses and tax identification numbers, on the other hand, may not provide enough detail to distinguish the property from neighboring properties or to define its exact boundaries.
- Legal requirements. In many jurisdictions, using a proper legal description in deeds and other legal documents is a requirement. Property addresses and tax identification numbers may not satisfy this requirement, which could result in the document being deemed invalid or unenforceable.
- Reliability. Legal descriptions in previous deeds are typically prepared by professionals, such as surveyors or attorneys, who have the expertise to accurately describe a property’s boundaries. This ensures that the description is reliable and less prone to errors compared to descriptions based on addresses or tax identification numbers.
Attorney Practice Note: Failure to use the prior deed as the source of the legal description can cause errors, disputes, and potential title issues. The deed should never describe the property conveyed using only the property address or the property tax identification numbers used by the tax assessor’s office. Even the “legal descriptions” included in local tax records may be abbreviated and inadequate to legally describe the property. It is almost always best to get the legal description from the prior deed.
When preparing a legal description, it is important to use the exact legal description that appears on the most recent deed to the property. This requires the preparer to pay special attention. It is best practice to proofread the legal description multiple times to be sure that every letter and item of punctuation appears exactly as it did in the prior deed.
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How to Locate the Legal Description on the Prior Deed to the Property
The best place to find a legal description is usually the most recent deed to the property (the deed that conveyed the property to the current owner). The legal description is usually contained in the body of the deed. It is usually easy to find by looking for these clues:
- Words of introduction. Legal descriptions are usually preceded by words of introduction, such as “… described as follows.” This language indicates that the legal description is about to begin.
- Double-indented, single-line font. The legal description is often set in double-indented, single-line font or set in boldface type to set it apart from the rest of the deed. See the examples below for an illustration.
- Exhibits to the deed. Sometimes, the legal description is attached as an exhibit to the deed. If so, the body of the deed will usually reference the attached legal description. For example, the body of the deed may refer to the property as “… the property described on Exhibit ‘A’ attached hereto.” Exhibit “A” will be attached to the deed and contain the legal description.
The wording of the legal description can vary depending on the type. Legal descriptions generally use one of two methods: the lot and block system or the metes and bounds system. These distinctions are often irrelevant to the deed preparation process. Knowing the different types of legal descriptions isn’t as important as knowing where to find the legal description to the specific property being conveyed.
Lot and Block Legal Descriptions
The lot and block system is a method of describing real estate by referring to a specific lot number and block number within a recorded subdivision or plat map. This system is commonly used in urban and suburban areas where land has been divided into smaller parcels. The following is an example of a lot and block legal description:
Click here for an example of a lot and block legal description in an actual deed.
Metes and Bounds Legal Descriptions
The metes and bounds system is a method of describing real property by providing a series of directions and distances from a specific starting point (known as the point of beginning) to define the boundaries of the property. The point of beginning could be a landmark or a point described based in the United States Public Land Survey System. This system is often used in rural areas or where properties have irregular shapes.
Click here for an example of a metes and bounds legal description in an actual deed.
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