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What is a Legal Description?

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  • Written By: Anna B. Smith
  • Edited By: Michelle Arevalo
  • Last Modified Date: 31 October 2016
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A legal description is the terminology used, in the U.S., to describe property locations in legal documents. This is typically based on existing township grids, and uses a combination of lettered abbreviations and numbers to locate the land. The description may usually be obtained from the records office of a county clerk or from property deeds.

In the U.S., a legal description is created by the Public Land Survey System (PLSS), a division of the federal government. The PLSS, through the use of professional surveyors, has divided each state, or local territory, into a grid system. This quantifies where townships are throughout the state and where, within each one, a specific property is located.

The PLSS was originally created to divide lands that were owned by the federal government. The system documents the land of 30 states, but not those on the east coast or Texas. Much of the property in those areas has been sold, and is privately owned.

A legal description may appear like this:

S ½ NW ¼ SE ¼, S32, T10S, R22W

This example states that the property being described is located in the southern half of the northwest quarter — of the southeast quarter of Section 32 — in township 10 south, and range 22 West. Properties are easiest to locate on a map when the description is read from right to left. This allows the reader to begin with the largest portion of land used in the description, and move gradually to the smallest, or most specific.

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Range is determined by counting the number of cells, east or west, from a specified starting point. Township tells how many cells, north or south, the property is located from a second specified starting point. These points were originally created by the surveyors of the U.S. Department of Interior, and are normally delineated on state maps.

On these maps, each cell of land identified by range and township numbers is six square miles, or 36 total miles. These 36 are further divided into individual one-mile sections. These are further grid-numbered in an S-shape, which alternates from right to left on the first row, then left to right on the second, throughout the section.

Each section in a legal description is further subdivided into four quarters, each containing a parcel of land that is 160 acres. The parcel may be divided again, into four quarters of 40 acres each, which may be split again as necessary into two 20-acre halves or four 10-acre quarters. This level of specificity allows surveyors to create legal descriptions for properties that range in size from one to 100 acres.

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