Legal Terms in Land Records
12 Jan 2012
We should say at the outset that we are not lawyers, but we have collected here a number
of terms that appear in deeds, legal proceedings, and queries in the Usenet genealogy
groups. We've done our best to decode their meaning.
The laws relating to land records are often
dealt with by common law (law based on custom and judicial precedent rather
than laws passed by the government), and determining legal rights can be highly
intricate. If you have a legal matter to resolve regarding land, we suggest you
contact several real estate attorneys and find one you're comfortable with. An
attorney's fees are inexpensive insurance if you consider the value of the property
If you don't see your favorite obscure terms, please
let us know. We're happy to add to our list.
Legal and Other Terms
- Accession - Adding on. In civil law, the right to all that one's property produces, not
just the property itself.
- Adminstrator(m)/administratrix(f) - A person appointed by the court to settle the estate of
someone who died intestate.
- Admit - see Copyhold.
- Ad quod damnum - A writ causing an evaluation of damages that might result from
someone's actions. Example: you wish to dam a creek on your land to power a mill. The pond may damage
- Adverse Possession - Gaining title to another's land by exercising the rights
of ownership of that land unchallenged for a period of time, typically on the order of
five to ten years, and meeting other requirements (as set by each state). See seizin.
- Alien - To transfer (lands, title) to another.
- Alienation - A transfer of title or property to another.
- Allodial - see alodium
- Alodium - Land owned independently, without rent or other
obligation to another. See Freehold Estate. The alodial
(also 'allodial') system is opposed to the feudal system.
- Appurtenances - Easements, rights of way, or agreements attached to land.
- Assignee - See assigns. Often seen in conjunction with
land warrants which were assigned (sold) to speculators.
- Assigns - Anyone acting on behalf of or in place of the nominal owner. The owner
may have transferred or sold his rights to someone else or appointed an attorney to act on his behalf.
- At will - Terminable by the lord of the manor at any time.
- Bargain - Mutual agreement among two or more people to exchange or purchase goods.
- Bargain and Sale Deed - A type of deed in which title is transfered but in which
there is usually no guarantee as to the validity of title.
- Bequest - A gift of personal property made in a will. See also devise.
- Bond for Deed/Title - A promise to convey land when paid at some point in the future.
- Burgage - A tenure in which burgesses or townsfolk held lands or tenements of
the lord, usually for a fixed rent. In Scotland the term related to tenure in property in the royal burghs.
- Cadastral Map - Land ownership map. Generally used for tax purposes.
- Caution - In the U.K., Canada, and elsewhere, a restriction on disposition of property
by the registered owner, placed by a person who claims a right on the property in question.
- Cesser - Failure of a tenant who holds land in return for services to perform those services.
- Chattel - A tangible, movable article of personal property, as opposed to real property.
- Claim - see Entry.
- Cloud on Title - An apparent claim or encumbrance on a title that would restrict the titleholder's free use of the land. Such encumbrance may or may not be valid, as determined by the court in an action to remove the cloud.
- Collateral - Property put up by someone getting a loan. If they fail to
repay the loan, the collateral goes to the person granting the loan.
- Color of Title - A deed appearing to convey title but in fact not
conveying title, either because the grantor did not have title to convey or
because the conveyance was flawed in some way.
- Condemn - The taking of privately owned land for public use by
eminent domain. In the U.S. just compensation must be provided for any lands thus taken.
- Consideration - The money (or other property) used to purchase land.
- Convey - To transfer property or the title to property from one person to another.
- Copyhold - A tenancy at will that was recorded in a manorial court
ownership roll. The lord of the manor maintained the list. Copyholds were not, strictly
speaking, inheritable, but were customarily so. The land reverted to the landowner who
would then "admit" the heir to the lands of the decedent.
- Covenant - A stipulation. A promise to do or not do something.
- Curtilage - In common law, the enclosed land immediately surrounding a dwelling house.
- Customary Estate - see copyhold
- Decedent - one who has died.
- Deed - A document giving the holder the title to property. More generally,
any document sealing an agreement, contract, etc. The most common types of deeds
Bargain and Sale, Quitclaim, and Warranty.
- Deed of trust - A transfer of property to someone to be held in trust for another. See trust.
More specifically, however, deeds of trust are used in a number of states instead of a mortgage to secure a loan. The
deed of trust names the trustees in whom title is placed as security against failure to meet the
terms of the loan.
- Deed poll - A deed not indented, that is, a deed made by one party only. See indenture.
- Deforce - To forcibly withhold property from its rightful owner.
- Demesne - 1) Possession of land as one's own. 2) The part of an estate worked
for the owner. 3) Land adjoining the manor house.
- Demise - Generally a synonym for 'lease', both noun and verb.
- Devise - A gift of real property made in a will. See also bequest.
- Dower - A wife's interest in her husband's property, inheritable at his death.
English probate law set this at 1/3. "Her thirds" was a phrase used for this. In the U.S.
it was common for a woman to formally relinquish her dower claim on land sold by
the husband. This further guaranteed that the property was clear of all obligations.
In some areas the lack of a dower relinquishment at the time of sale was proof that
the man was single or widowed. See also jointure.
- Easement - Use of a portion of property for some stated purpose without
remuneration. Easements are not estates in that they do not convey ownership, but rather
the use of the property in so far as needed for the stated purpose. An example is the
easement a city may have to dig up part of your land to repair the water main. Easement
is a right. Contrast with servitude.
- Ejectment - A suit by an owner to reclaim ownership from a tenant who has overstayed the
terms of a lease. Originally it was a suit brought by a fictitious tenant to try the title of
the landlord in order to acquire the land under lease.
- Emolument - Profit derived from employment or labor, including wages and other compensation.
- Encroachment - To gain unlawfully or infringe on the property of another.
- Encumbrance - A burden on a property, generally one that affects the ability to transfer
title, or one which affects the condition of the property. Examples are liens, mortgages, taxes,
easements, water rights, etc.
- Enfeoff - To invest with an estate held in fee.
- Enfeoffment - Giving ownership in fee. A deed or legal document giving ownership in fee.
- Entail - To create a fee tail, or to create one from fee simple.
- Entry - Filing of the intention to get a land grant or patent. This
was the first step of a multi-step process of getting land, the other steps generally
being Survey, and Grant.
- Escheat - Land ownership reverting to the Crown, government, or estate owner because of a lack of heirs or breach of condition to ownership. See also forfeiture.
- Esse - In esse (Latin). In existence. See also posse.
- Estate - A property right held by someone. There can be many estates
held on a single piece of property, for example, relating to specific uses of the
property. Mineral rights, water rights, and so on are examples. Estates can be subordinate (lower in rank) to other estates.
- Et al - Latin et alia, for "and others".
- Et ux - Latin et uxor, for "and wife".
- Exception - A clause in a deed whereby the seller retains some right
currently held on the land being sold, for example, "my land except 3 acres...", "my land
except mineral rights...". In both cases the seller owned the thing being excepted.
See also Reservation.
- Exception and Reservation - A general term found in deeds when a
seller retains some kind of interest in the property.
Technically the language should refer to a reservation or exception as
needed but many deeds are written with this catchall phrase.
- Executor/executrix - The person named in a will to carry out the terms of the will. See administrator.
- Fee - Heritable land held in return for service to a lord.
- Fee simple - Ownership of land that can be inherited by any heirs. To hold in fee means to possess.
- Fee tail - Ownership of land restricted to a specified class of heirs, generally direct
- Fem Covert - A married woman.
- Feoff - See fee
- Feoffment - Transfer of inheritable real property.
- Feoffee - One who benefits from a fief.
- Feud - See fee.
- Feudal system - The system of land holding in exchange for service, ultimately to the
king. This is opposed to the alodial system.
- Fief - See fee.
- Fieri Facias - A common law writ to enforce collection of a debt. Typically
executed by the sheriff, the property of the debtor is sold to satisfy the claim.
- Forfeiture - Loss of property for failure to obey the law, or reversion of title to the sovereign because of default or an offense. It can be applied to any part of an interest of ownership. See also escheat.
- Freehold - see fee simple
- Grant - Transfer of title from the government to the
first titleholder of a piece of property. This term is generally used by states
and the federal government. See also patent.
- Grantee - The person receiving a grant, or buying property.
- Grantor - The person issuing the grant, or selling property.
- Headright - A Virginia sytem of land patents, prevalent in the
1600's in which immigrants, including minor children, were entitled to
50 acres of land apiece. It was customary for the person paying passage
to claim the headright, though the right appears to belong to the immigrant.
Headrights could be sold or assigned to others. A headright system was also
used in other states including South Carolina and Georgia.
- Hereditament - Anything that can be inherited.
A corporeal hereditament is tangible real or personal property that can
be inherited. An incorporeal hereditament includes intagible appurtenances, rents, and the like.
- Importation right - See headright.
- Improve - To make land more valuable by clearing and planting. Land that was not
improved by the owner might revert to the government.
- In capite - Latin - An estate in land held by direct grant of the king.
- Incumbrance - See encumbrance.
- Indefeasible Estate - An estate that cannot be changed under any circumstances.
- Indenture - A written agreement. (Originally, the document was written in
duplicate, and the two copies placed side by side and 'indented', or cut, with a wavy
line so they fit together perfectly.) See also deed poll.
- Ingress and Egress - The entering and leaving of land and the means of doing so.
- In personam - Latin - A legal action against a person.
- In rem - Latin - A legal action to affect the interests of people in a thing such as a parcel
of land. Examples would be partitioning an estate or foreclosing. See also in personam.
- Intangible property - The opposite of tangible property. Examples are
property rights, easements, copyrights and other things of value that have no physical presence. Also,
certificates or other items that have no inherent value but which represent something physical.
- Intestate - Having no will. If someone dies intestate, the court appoints
an administrator to settle the estate.
- Instrument - Legal document.
- Investiture - See livery of seizin.
- Joint tenancy - Ownership by two or more people, with rights of survivorship. Tenants can
act individually to partition or sell their interest in the property, but such actions
create a tenancy in common. See also tenancy by the entirety.
- Jointure - Property given to a prospective wife, to be enjoyed by her at her husband's death.
Differs from dower in the way in which her future is protected.
- Lease and Release - A practice in early Virginia that is equivalent to
a sale. It was accomplished by a two step process of leasing the property in question
to the buyer, then releasing the buyer of the lease obligation.
- License - A personal privilege or permission to make some use of land owned by another.
- Lien - A charge or claim upon someone's property as security for a debt. A lien
does not confer title. The law recognizes the right to have a debt satisfied out of someone's property.
- Life(time) Estate - An estate with duration limited to the lifetime of the holder or some other person. See remainder.
- Lis pendens -(Latin for pending or suspended lawsuit). A notice warning all parties that title to a property is under litigation and that they may be bound by an adverse judgment.
- Livery - Delivery of ownership.
- Livery of Seizin - An open and 'notorious' public ceremony conferring ownership of a freehold estate.
- Locator - A person who determines or establishes the boundaries of land or a mining claim.
- Messuage - A dwelling house with its adjacent buildings and lands appropriated to the use of the household.
- Moiety - One half. One of two equal parts. A share or portion.
- Monstrans de droit - A claim of right to property, grounded in fact.
- More or less - This term is frequently used in deeds to qualify acreage, e.g. "50 acres, being the same more or less".
Even accurate surveys have some error in the calculation of area and this phrase recognizes that
- Mortgage - Today we think of this as a secured loan (for example, a loan
with a house as collateral). In older times it was often written as a regular deed
of sale with a condition attached such that the sale was void if certain payments
are made by a certain date. With a mortgage, if the borrower fails to pay the mortgage note off, the mortgagor
must successfully sue in order to sell the property and recover the loan. See deed of trust for
a different way of establishing security for a loan.
- Mutation - In India, the process of legally changing a parcel's owner. It results
in an updated RTC (Record of Right Tenancy and Cultivation), the backbone of the
Indian land record system.
- Parcel - A piece of land. A tract.
- Patent - Transfer of title from the government to the
first titleholder of a piece of property. This term was generally used by the Crown
or its representative. See also grant.
- Payoff Deed - In Arizona and perhaps elsewhere, a deed of ownership issued
when seller receives full payment under the terms of a deed of trust or agreement of sale.
- Planting and Seating - See improve. In Virginia colonial
law a patentee was required to cultivate an acre of land and build a small
house on the property, otherwise the patent would revert to the government.
- Posse - In posse (Latin). In the future or which might exist in the future. See also esse.
- Possessory - Relating to ownership.
- Premises - A somewhat fluid term meaning land and its appurtenances, or land and its buildings and structures.
- Private Road Maintenance Agreement - An agreement between all property
owners that abut a private road to maintain that road. Lenders require this
agreement if the private road is the only access to a property.
- Privity - A relationship between parties having a direct or indirect interest
in a legal matter. Class actions are an example where parties not involved in
a suit have a privity relation to it. Parties in estate transactions necessarily
have privity, and so do heirs of an estate.
- Prove Up - See Improve.
- Probate - The process of proving a decedent's will and settling the estate.
The signing of a will was typically witnessed by neighbors, who would later swear in court
that they saw the decedent sign the will prior to death. This "proved" that the will
was actually that of the decedent.
- Property - Any kind of thing which has a value and which one can
exercise the rights of ownership upon, including possession, use, and disposal.
- Quiet Title - A legal proceeding to determine the title of property claimed by multiple parties.
- Quitclaim Deed - A common type of deed in which the seller relinquishes
claim to whatever rights were held on the property, but does not guarantee that
that the property is actually free of claims by others.
- Quitrent - A rent paid in lieu of required feudal services. See fee and socage. The
quitrent can be considered a real estate tax.
- Real property - Land. See also chattel.
- Remainder - Transfer of ownership to someone on the death of another. For example,
land may be sold to person A for use during their lifetime, but then remaindered to person
B at the death of A.
- Remise - To relinquish a claim to something, specifically to release
or quitclaim an interest in real estate.
- Replevin An action for recovery of property that has been illegally
withheld from the rightful owner, plus damages for its detention. This is generally
not an action to recover the value of the withheld property, but the actual
- Reservation - A clause in a deed wherein seller retains a right in the
land being sold but the specific right did not previously exist. "Reserving
a right of way" is an example if the right of way did not previously exist.
See also Exception.
- Revert - Return of ownership to a former owner (or heirs).
- Right of Entry - Permission to enter someone's property.
- Right of Way - An easement for passage across someone's land.
- Room - "in the room of" means in the place of, instead of.
- Scire Facias - A writ requiring a party to show why a judgment should not
be vacated, executed, or annulled.
- Seised/Seized - Legally owning and possessing real property.
- Seisin/Seizin - Ownership or 'in fact' possession of a freehold estate. Inferred here
is an increasing degree of ownership with the passage of time, as the possessor makes productive
use of the land. Seizin was originally not an estate, but a way to gain one, as by adverse
possession. This is rooted in the Roman concept that whoever worked the land should be its owner.
- Sergeantry - Non-military service to a lord in exchange for land.
- Servitude - An encumbrance attached to land, specifically one that
imposes a burden on the owner. Contrast with easement.
- Setback - Required minimum distance new construction must have from the sides of the property, the street, and other structures. Setbacks are defined by local ordinance.
- Socage - Holding of land by a tenant in return for fixed payment
or for non-military service to the lord. This system was eventually replaced by our
system of taxation. See quitrent.
- Soke - The jurisdiction of a court.
- Special Warranty Deed - A warranty deed constrained to the
period during which seller owned the property. Claims for title defects that predate the seller's
ownership period are not warranteed.
- Straw Deed, Strawman Deed - Two deeds filed in succession, the first from party A to party B,
second from B back to A. This was used to sidestep legal restrictions of sales between
spouses or joint owners, or to incorporate a new survey description. Party B is a
trusted intermediary, either a close friend or attorney.
- Tangible property - The opposite of intangible property. Examples are
land or other movable personal property that has a physical reality.
- Tenancy by the entirety - A form of joint tenancy held
by husband and wife. Title automatically transfers to the survivor upon
the death of one party. Neither party can sell or divide the property without
the consent of the other.
- Tenancy in common - Title held by two or more people where each
person can sell their interest without the consent of the other owners. There
are no rights of survivorship.
- Tenant - One who holds land by a permanent or temporary right. Specifically, one who leases property from its owner.
- Tenement - Permanent property, whether concrete or not, such as
land, buildings, cars, or the stock represented by a stock certificate. In
most common usage it means a house or building.
- Tenure - The right to hold. Also, the hierarchical feudal system of land holding, i.e. king to lord to serf.
- Teste - (Latin). Witness.
- Testate - Having a will.
- Thirds - see dower
- Title - Legal ownership as evidenced by a deed or other instrument.
- To wit - That is to say.
- Tract - A piece of land. A parcel.
- Trespass - In common law, a suit to recover damages directly made to one's person, property, or rights.
- Trespass on the case - Similar to trespass, but for damages suffered indirectly.
- Trust - Confidence placed in someone by giving them property to be held or
used for another's benefit. The property held in trust.
- Trustee - An individual to whom another's property is entrusted.
- Try Title - To test the validity of someone's title to property.
- Vacate - 1) To set aside or render void, 2) to move out.
- Viz., Vizt. - Videlicet (Latin). That is to say.
- Warrant - A governmental order authorizing some action. An arrest warrant
instructs a sheriff to arrest someone. A land warrant instructs a state to
issue land to someone.
- Warranty Deed - A deed in which the seller warrants having a valid title and that the
property is clear of any encumbrances. See also Special Warranty Deed.
- Waste Land - Land that has not been claimed, or which has escheated.
- Assee - Assignee.
- B for D - Bond for Deed
- Comr D - Commissioners' Deed
- DAF - Described as follows
- DOV - Declaration of Value (real estate transfer tax declaration)
- Dwr Rls - Dower Release
- Fi Fa - Fieri facias
- L & R - Lease and Release
- MOL - More or less
- P of A - Power of Attorney
- P/F - per following
- QCD - Quitclaim Deed
- ROE - Right of Entry
- WD - Warranty Deed
- T.A.B. - Trespass, Assault, and Battery.
- TOC - Trespass on the case
- "Black's Law Dictionary"
- "Law Dictionary", Steven H. Gifis, 1996, Barron's Educational Series
- "Webster's New Universal Unabridged Dictionary", 1979
- Jerry R. Broadus, LS, Esq., "The Surveyor and the Law", regular column in P.O.B.
- soc.genealogy newsgroup postings
- Discussions with several lawyers
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