Unsigned Deed Effects Transfer Despite “Statute of Frauds”


The law can be inflexible and unforgiving of mistakes. This is particularly true with respect to real estate transfers, where nearly four centuries of legal precedent require strict compliance with the formalities of deeds and conveyances. Sometimes, however, the legal system recognizes that mistakes happen, as was the case for Will York.

Mr. York owned a farm in Tennessee. In 1981 he hired a surveyor to divide the property into four parcels for distribution to his three children and one grandchild. Early in 1982 he hired an attorney to draw up the deeds to transfer the four parcels.

Each of the four deeds was notarized, indicating that Mr. York personally appeared before the notary and signed each document. Somehow, however, one deed—the one to daughter Ethel York—was not signed. Mr. York placed the deeds in a wooden box in his bedroom closet.

Four years later, while Mr. York was hospitalized, he asked his daughter Luella to bring him the wooden box. He opened it, reviewed the deeds for about a half hour, and then handed them to Luella with instructions to deliver each deed to the child named on that deed. Ethel York was not in town at the time, so her deed was delivered some time later.

Mr. York died shortly after the deeds had been delivered. All four deeds were ultimately recorded, and each of the recipients took possession of the property and began paying property taxes on their parcel.

Five years later Ethel York sold her parcel of land to an unrelated party. Five years after that Mr. York’s other children learned that the deed to Ethel York had not been signed, and began to argue that title to that parcel had never been conveyed to Ethel York—and that she could not have sold it to new owners.

The couple who had purchased the property brought suit to determine whether they in fact owned anything. After a local judge ruled that the property had been Ethel York’s to convey her siblings appealed the decision.

The Tennessee Court of Appeals first pointed out the general rule about transfers of real estate. The “Statute of Frauds,” adopted in England in 1677 and now incorporated in the law in every American state, generally requires real estate transfers to be in writing, signed by the transferor and acknowledged before a notary. There are few exceptions to that requirement.

In this case, however, the Court of Appeals reasoned that the evidence was clear: Mr. York had simply made a mistake. The other deeds were signed and notarized, and Ethel York’s deed was notarized though not signed. The deeds included the surveyor’s map with Ethel York’s tract clearly marked. Mr. York’s behavior made it clear that he intended to convey the property. The law is flexible enough to recognize a mistake, and the Court agreed that the property was Ethel York’s to sell. Lane v. Spriggs, October 19, 2001.

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