Category: Legal writing

The case for lower case in legal descriptions

Surveyors are wonderful and interesting people, full of information about real estate and able to interpret documents that perplex many lawyers.  The combination of an able lawyer and a competent surveyor can resolve problems that neither could handle alone.

For some years I’ve encouraged surveyors to change one quirk in how they do business, which is to cease writing legal descriptions in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS and in run-on paragraphs.  All caps and run-on paragraphs may be an acceptable style for Internet conspiracy theorists, but not for surveyors and their cousins in the title insurance companies.

Consider the following actual legal description from one of our property transactions, which I’ve lightly anonymized but otherwise left untouched.  Here is the legal description in the format in which I received it:

A TRACT OF LAND SITUATED IN THE NORTHEAST QUARTER SOUTHEAST QUARTER OF SECTION 3, TOWNSHIP 10 SOUTH, RANGE 10 EAST OF THE WILLAMETTE MERIDIAN, HARRISON COUNTY, OREGON, DESCRIBED AS FOLLOWS:

BEGINNING AT A ½ INCH IRON PIN WHICH BEARS SOUTH 89º 52’ WEST A DISTANCE OF 745.73 FEET AND SOUTH 0º 20’ 55″ EAST A DISTANCE OF 220.16 FEET FROM THE BRASS CAP MONUMENT MARKING THE EAST QUARTER CORNER OF SECTION 3, TOWNSHIP 10 SOUTH, RANGE 10 EAST OF THE WILLAMETTE MERIDIAN, SAID BEGINNING POINT ALSO BEING ON THE SOUTH LINE OF TRACT DESCRIBED AS PARCEL #1 IN DEED FROM HARRISON COUNTY SCHOOL DISTRICT TO HARRISON COUNTY, RECORDED IN VOLUME 42 AT PAGE 314, DEED RECORDS OF HARRISON COUNTY, OREGON; THENCE CONTINUING FROM SAID BEGINNING POINT SOUTH 0º 20’ 55″ EAST ALONG A LINE PARALLEL TO AND 4.0 FEET DISTANT EASTERLY, WHEN MEASURED AT RIGHT ANGLES TO, FROM THE EXISTING EASTERLY WALL OF THE PAYLESS DRUG STORE BUILDING AS THE SAME IS PRESENTLY LOCATED AND CONSTRUCTED, A DISTANCE OF 402.04 FEET TO ½ INCH IRON PIPE; THENCE SOUTH 53º 42’ 15″ WEST A DISTANCE OF 304.44 FEET, MORE OR LESS TO A ½ INCH IRON PIPE ON THE NORTHEASTERLY BOUNDARY OF THE SHORT LINE RAILROAD RIGHT OF WAY AS THE SAME IS PRESENTLY LOCATED AND CONSTRUCTED AND FROM WHICH POINT THE AFORESAID MONUMENT MARKING THE EAST QUARTER CORNER OF SAID SECTION 3 BEARS NORTH 50º 50’ 20″ EAST A DISTANCE OF 1273.34 FEET; THENCE NORTHWESTERLY ALONG SAID NORTHEASTERLY BOUNDARY OF THE SHORT LINE RAILROAD RIGHT OF WAY A DISTANCE OF 299.5 FEET, MORE OR LESS, TO THE WEST LINE OF SAID NORTHEAST QUARTER SOUTHEAST QUARTER; THENCE NORTH ALONG SAID WEST LINE A DISTANCE OF 186.5 FEET, MORE OR LESS, TO A POINT ON SAID WEST LINE WHICH BEARS SOUTH 0º 22’ 15″ EAST A DISTANCE OF 460.0 FEET FROM THE SOUTHERLY BOUNDARY LINE OF THE RELOCATED RIGHT OF WAY OF BEND-ONTARIO HIGHWAY; THENCE EASTERLY, PARALLEL WITH SAID HIGHWAY RIGHT OF WAY LINE A DISTANCE OF 142.5 FEET TO A POINT; THENCE NORTH, PARALLEL WITH THE WEST LINE OF SAID NORTHEAST QUARTER SOUTHEAST QUARTER, A DISTANCE OF 460.0 FEET, MORE OR LESS, TO THE SOUTHERLY BOUNDARY OF SAID RELOCATED HIGHWAY RIGHT OF WAY; THENCE EASTERLY ALONG SAID RELOCATED RIGHT OF WAY LINE A DISTANCE OF 387.7 FEET, MORE OR LESS, TO A POINT WHICH BEARS NORTH 0º 20’ 55″ WEST FROM THE POINT OF BEGINNING; THENCE SOUTH 0º 20’ 55″ EAST A DISTANCE OF 174.66 FEET, MORE OR LESS, TO THE POINT OF BEGINNING.

Is that mess anything you want to read, let alone proofread?  Let us reformat this description.  First, we won’t write it in ALL CAPS but with ordinary capitalization.  Second, we’ll begin each call (each metes-and-bounds course) on a new line.  With those two simple changes in formatting, the opaque description becomes much easier both to read and to proof.  Here’s how our reformatted legal description begins:

           A tract of land situated in the Northeast quarter of the Southeast quarter of Section 3, Township 10 South, Range 10 East of the Willamette Meridian, Harrison County, Oregon, described as follows:

            Beginning at a ½ inch iron pin which bears South 89º 52’ West a distance of 745.73 feet and South 0º 20’ 55″ East a distance of 220.16 feet from the brass cap monument marking the East quarter corner of Section 3, Township 10 South, Range 10 East of the Willamette Meridian, said beginning point also being on the South line of tract described as Parcel #1 in deed from Harrison County School District to Harrison County, recorded in Volume 42 at Page 314, Deed Records of Harrison County, Oregon;

            Thence continuing from said beginning point South 0º 20’ 55″ East along a line parallel to and 4.0 feet distant Easterly, when measured at right angles to, from the existing Easterly wall of the Payless Drug Store building as the same is presently located and constructed, a distance of 402.04 feet to ½ inch iron pipe;

            Thence South 53º 42’ 15″ West a distance of 304.44 feet, more or less to a ½ inch iron pipe on the northeasterly boundary of the Short Line Railroad * * *

When a client buys property described by metes and bounds, if the description is not a simple rectangle I will enter it into deed plotting software and verify that the legal description closes – that the last call ends where the first call begins.  Once or twice a year I discover a legal description that doesn’t close, sometimes because a past conveyancer has transposed numbers, or exchanged “east” for “west,” or omitted an entire call.  Surveyors, title insurance companies, and lawyers will catch these errors much more easily if we write legal descriptions to be easier to read.  Let’s agree to leave the field of ALL CAPS to the Internet screamers.

There is no “slow claim” deed either

The evolution of our language has left some legal concepts with names that no longer reflect what they actually mean.  The Statute of Frauds doesn’t describe the crime of fraud. The Statute of Uses has nothing to do with land use.

Speech transcription is adding to the list: I am seeing more references to “quick claim deeds” instead of “quitclaim deeds.” They are no faster or slower than any other kind of deed; calling a deed “quick” doesn’t speed it up.

We like “Landlords.” Here’s why.

A tip on drafting leases:  Embrace the “Landlord” — no, not that kind of embrace.  Embrace the word.  

William Nickerson, in his classic work on investing in real estate, recommended using the terms “Lessor” and “Lessee” in leases.  He thought that “Landlord” sounded like a relic of the feudal era, and that it offended tenants.  

He may have been right about the effect on tenants, but he was wrong about the effect on contracts.  If you use “Lessor” and “Lessee” to identify the parties to a lease, you’re much more likely to mistake one term for the other when you’re proofreading the agreement.  No one mistakes “Landlord” for “Tenant,” but casual readers can easily mistake “Lessor” for “Lessee.”  It’s a whimsical mistake to make — unless you’re the “Lessor” to whom the lease assigned maintenance and repair responsibilities that you wanted to be the tenant’s responsibility, and that your tenant now wants you to fulfill.   

Don’t be afraid to be the “Landlord” in the lease: it’s a lessor evil (sorry) than being mistaken for the tenant.