Understanding Legal Descriptions for Land

By LandCentral

The primary purpose of a legal description is to describe a particular parcel of land in a way that uniquely describes only that property, without ambiguity (being vague). It is also important that the legal description survives through time, or be composed in such a way that the legal description is not dependent on elements that may not be available in the future. In the United States, the most common methods used to describe land are by reference to a lot and/or block within an existing subdivision, by aliquot description, by metes and bounds, or by a combination of these.


A Subdivision Plat is exactly what it sounds like; a plat that subdivides. For either large or small subdivisions, the goals are the same, to meet the requirements of current land use ordinances and to provide a method of creating smaller parcels of land. Because the subdivision plat creates several parcels of land simultaneously, it provides for a much simpler legal description when referring to any particular parcel of land within the subdivision.


Aliquot descriptions are legal descriptions using the nomenclature of the U.S. Public Land Survey System. This would include references to portions of Sections, Townships, and Ranges. Land within rural or undeveloped land is often described this way. A typical legal description of this nature would read something like “The northwest quarter of the southwest quarter of Section 30, Township 1 North, Range 70 West of the Sixth Principal Meridian”. Each occurrence of the word “quarter” indicates the division of the section (roughly one mile square) into quadrants (quarters), with each quarter being progressively divided into further quarters.


Some land cannot be described briefly. In these cases, a “metes and bounds” description is required. “Metes,” meaning measurements, and “bounds,” meaning boundaries, are designated for so many units of measurement along a specified boundary line and describe the geometry of the perimeter of a parcel of land. A metes and bounds description is often lengthy, as it may contain bearings and distances for each line, descriptive geometry of each curve, and references to other adjacent or nearby parcels of land.


Flatirons Surveying, Inc. http://www.flatsurv.com/(July 14, 2004)
Michigan Dept of Natural Resources. http://www.michigan.gov/documents/IC4008_47977_7.pdf

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