Legal Descriptions in Deeds Must Exactly Identify Sold Property

By Joseph G. Ballstaedt

 A few days ago, the Idaho Supreme Court issued a decision that reaffirms an Idaho rule concerning property descriptions. The Court held that a conveyance deed is not enforceable unless the property description in the deed describes the property so that it is possible for someone to identify exactly what property is being conveyed. This description must be written in so that quantity, identity, or boundaries can be determined. The description must stand alone, without support from outside evidence.

In this recent decision, The David and Marvel Benton Trust v. McCarty, McCarty asserted that the following legal description in a quitclaim deed was sufficient:

The property at 550 Linden Drive and the building known as Benton Engineering building located upon the property and all adjacent parking lots to the South of the Building and to the West of the Building and right of access into the parking lot located at 550 Linden Drive, Idaho Falls, Idaho located in Bonneville County and more commonly known as the Benton Engineering Office Building.

After reviewing prior case law addressing proper legal descriptions, the Court disagreed, explaining that the quitclaim deed’s description was legally deficient and unenforceable. Among other things, it explained that a physical street address—like that one contained in the description—is insufficient. Also, the landmarks referenced in the description did not adequate describe the property because McCarty claimed the quitclaim deed conveyed additional land beyond what these landmarks encompassed. Finally, the Court explained that the most damning evidence against McCarty was the fact that she submitted various explanations of the property—a revised quitclaim deed and a survey—that both conflicted with the quitclaim deed’s description. Thus, even resorting to outside evidence (or extrinsic evidence), it was unclear what property the quitclaim deed conveyed.

Interestingly, the Court explained that extrinsic evidence cannot be used to clarify a legal description but used extrinsic evidence to show that there was ambiguity as to what exact property was allegedly transferred. Perhaps the Court should have disregarded the revised quitclaim deed and survey and instead focused solely on whether the quitclaim deed—standing alone—described a definite portion of property. In any event, the takeaway from this case is that parties to a land transaction should take care to clearly and accurately describe the transferred property. Any ambiguity could render the transaction void and create headaches for subsequent owners. At times, a survey may be necessary to avoid there problems.


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