How to Correct a Legal Description in your Deed or Deed of Trust
From time to time, parties that enter contractual relationships involving real property find themselves in circumstances where the document of conveyance or encumbrance, such as a vesting deed or a deed of trust, contains an improper legal description. In the case of the purchase and sale of real estate, this can leave parties with a faulty transaction and the incomplete conveyance of title. In the event of a lender taking a deed of trust, it can lead to enforcement problems should the borrower owning the property fail to meet the legal obligations contained in the note secured by the deed of trust.
Parties should act with great care in preparing legal documents that affect title. Indeed, Washington law generally provides that parties cannot reform an inadequate legal description contained in a deed, deed of trust, or other document affecting title. In other words, under most circumstances, a court will not allow parties to reform the document if the legal description is incorrect.
Fortunately, parties can reform an inadequate legal description in the event of a mutual mistake, where the parties had identical intentions at the time of the transaction, but the written agreement does not express that intention. Most often, this occurs through a scrivener’s error, where the preparer of the document makes an error in writing down the legal description, and this does not accord with the intention of the parties. A party seeking to prove a scrivener’s error and mutual mistake can use direct or circumstantial evidence in support of the claim, but the evidence must be clear, cogent, and convincing.
If the evidence demonstrates that the parties had the same intent to use the correct legal description, but that the written document did not reflect this intention, the Washington courts can order reformation to correct the document. Reformation provides a valuable tool for those seeking to enforce documents affecting real property, whether that be the proper conveyance of property through a deed, or the enforcement of a security interest that encumbers title. Without reformation, these parties may not have the ability to enforce the terms of their legal documents.
Reformation, however, has some limitations. First, where only one party has made a mistake (a/k/a unilateral mistake), but the other party did not make that mistake, the mistaken party cannot seek reformation absent very specific circumstances involving fraud by the other party. Second, where the parties’ intention results in the error (i.e., where the parties intentionally act in a manner that ends up being mistaken, rather than having their intentions subverted by the mistake), they cannot obtain reformation. For example, if two parties intentionally write down an incorrect legal description, they cannot reform that legal description. On the other hand, if two parties intended to write down the correct legal description, but the writing does not reflect that intention, they can obtain reformation. Finally, parties cannot reform an otherwise void contract since the reformation process presupposes the existence of a valid contract.
If two parties do not agree to reform improper documents, the parties may find themselves in court to resolve the issue. The lawyers at Beresford Booth PLLC have extensive experience addressing a wide variety of litigation matters, including reformation issues in contract and real estate law. If you have any litigation needs, please do not hesitate to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone (425) 776-4100 for assistance.