Close this search box.

Unsigned Deed Effects Transfer Despite “Statute of Frauds”

Print Article


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.

Stay up to date

Subscribe to our Newsletter to get our takes on some of the situations families, seniors, and individuals with disabilities find themselves in. These posts help guide you in the decision making process and point out helpful tips and nuances to take advantage of. Enter your email below to have our entries sent directly to your inbox!

Robert B. Fleming


Robert Fleming is a Fellow of both the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel and the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys. He has been certified as a Specialist in Estate and Trust Law by the State Bar of Arizona‘s Board of Legal Specialization, and he is also a Certified Elder Law Attorney by the National Elder Law Foundation. Robert has a long history of involvement in local, state and national organizations. He is most proud of his instrumental involvement in the Special Needs Alliance, the premier national organization for lawyers dealing with special needs trusts and planning.

Robert has two adult children, two young grandchildren and a wife of over fifty years. He is devoted to all of them. He is also very fond of Rosalind Franklin (his office companion corgi), and his homebound cat Muninn. He just likes people, their pets and their stories.

Elizabeth N.R. Friman


Elizabeth Noble Rollings Friman is a principal and licensed fiduciary at Fleming & Curti, PLC. Elizabeth enjoys estate planning and helping families navigate trust and probate administrations. She is passionate about the fiduciary work that she performs as a trustee, personal representative, guardian, and conservator. Elizabeth works with CPAs, financial professionals, case managers, and medical providers to tailor solutions to complex family challenges. Elizabeth is often called upon to serve as a neutral party so that families can avoid protracted legal conflict. Elizabeth relies on the expertise of her team at Fleming & Curti, and as the Firm approaches its third decade, she is proud of the culture of care and consideration that the Firm embodies. Finding workable solutions to sensitive and complex family challenges is something that Elizabeth and the Fleming & Curti team do well.

Amy F. Matheson


Amy Farrell Matheson has worked as an attorney at Fleming & Curti since 2006. A member of the Southern Arizona Estate Planning Council, she is primarily responsible for estate planning and probate matters.

Amy graduated from Wellesley College with a double major in political science and English. She is an honors graduate of Suffolk University Law School and has been admitted to practice in Arizona, Massachusetts, New York, and the District of Columbia.

Prior to joining Fleming & Curti, Amy worked for American Public Television in Boston, and with the international trade group at White & Case, LLP, in Washington, D.C.

Amy’s husband, Tom, is an astronomer at NOIRLab and the Head of Time Domain Services, whose main project is ANTARES. Sadly, this does not involve actual time travel. Amy’s twin daughters are high school students; Finn, her Irish Red and White Setter, remains a puppy at heart.

Famous people's wills

Matthew M. Mansour


Matthew is a law clerk who recently earned his law degree from the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law. His undergraduate degree is in psychology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Matthew has had a passion for advocacy in the Tucson community since his time as a law student representative in the Workers’ Rights Clinic. He also has worked in both the Pima County Attorney’s Office and the Pima County Public Defender’s Office. He enjoys playing basketball, caring for his cat, and listening to audiobooks narrated by the authors.