Trusts, Estates, and Conveyances

What’s in a name?

Is a conveyance by or from the “Estate of Joe Jones” or the “Number One Family Trust” a valid conveyance?

The brief answer is resoundingly probably not. In Miller v. Estate of John C. Self, 2003 Tex. App. LEXIS 6302 (2003), the Texarkana Court of Appeals considered a lawsuit brought by one Sandra Miller against the “Estate of John C. Self.” The court upheld a lower court’s dismissal of the action, and reminded the chagrined counsel that “[i]t has long been settled that the “estate” of a decedent is not a legal entity and may not sue or be sued as such.” It follows, therefore, that ‘[a] suit seeking to establish the liability of an estate should be filed against the personal representative or, in certain circumstances, the heirs or beneficiaries.”

Fred Lange, who wrote the definitive work on Texas Land Titles, maintains that

The accepted rule is that, in order for an instrument to be operative as deed conveying title to, or interest, or estate inland, the grantee named in the deed must be a person, natural or artificial, in existence at the time of the conveyance … . Fred A. Lange and A.A. Leopold, 4 Texas Practice, Land Titles and Title Examination, 2d ed. §644.

Some cases hold that a conveyance to an Estate will operate to vest title in the heirs (see, e.g., Haile v. Holtzclaw, 414 S.W. 2d 916 (Tex. 1967) and the cases cited in that opinion), but there is a significant problem raised when that happens. For example, what happens if the heirs are not ascertainable until after a probate proceeding (or worse, a lawsuit) has settled the issue?

The same considerations apply to trusts, which are not, strictly speaking “legal entities,” nor have they ever been during the last few hundred years. Mr. Lange expounded on that matter as well:

[T]he legal title and right to possession of land must be vested in a trustee. [citations] Lange, §338.

Under the Texas Property Code, the name of the Trust need not be disclosed, so a conveyance into Joe Jones, Trustee, will pass title; a conveyance into the Family Trust Number 17 is not.

Hence, if you receive a lease, an agreement or some other instrument which affects rights in oil and gas, and which is to be executed by an Estate or a Trust, without reference to the Executor, Administrator, Personal Representative or Trustee, you may be well on the way to creating a legal problem and a cloud on title.