Rules of the Game: Reading and Writing Legal Descriptions: A Survey and GIS Joint Perspective

By F. Peirce Eichelberger and J. Peter Borbas

ChartWe developed a one-day GIS/survey workshop in 2013-2014 (a new URISA/GLIS workshop), and from that a half dozen topics arose of particular interest to both surveyors and GIS professionals[1]. One issue near the top was legal descriptions. With both surveyors and GIS/mapping staff intimately involved with legal descriptions, improving legal descriptions will only benefit from a joint discipline perspective.

Legal descriptions often represent the raw materials of the daily work of GIS, survey, and other interests. When land is bought and sold, when a street is widened, when an easement is acquired, the legal description (a.k.a. “legals”) is the movable/off-site/in-office description of the property, or right, in question.

An end result of the surveyor’s work is often a legal description that describes the property, easement, or “right” in question. The legal description is fundamental to recording a document at the courthouse to make the process, transfer of property, or rights “public” and final. It is used to identify the proper/correct property/right for title transfer. It’s also the raw material used by the GIS mapping staff to update the cadastral base map and many other related GIS layers or themes.

Problems arise when the legal descriptions are incorrect, incomplete, or cannot be cross-referenced with earlier or adjacent legal descriptions representing parent (senior) or nearby properties. Other problems may arise when the legal descriptions use abbreviations that are unclear or unstandardized. Legals also sometimes do not refer to a particular datum or orientation, for example: true north versus magnetic north, etc.

Both surveyors and GIS staff have much in common when it comes to using legal descriptions. A cooperative surveyor/GIS perspective must be developed so both disciplines can begin to envision a new era of working more closely together.

Background/Uses of Legal Descriptions

Legal descriptions are “read” by the following people for the following reasons:

  • by the surveyor to research senior or abutting legal descriptions prior to going into the field,
  • by GIS staff to update the cadastral layers of the GIS,
  • by GIS staff to update other “layers” or themes in the GIS (utility easements),
  • by clerks/recorders or other land record staff to verify proper indices such as grantee/grantor, address or Parcel Identification Number (PIN) or Uniform Parcel Identifier (UPI),
  • by the private sector to determine mineral rights, easements, and right-of-way boundaries, and
  • by other interests, such as right-of-way agents, utility interests, planners, and title/real estate (for chain of title) staff.

The simple fact that legal descriptions are so important downstream from the field work a surveyor completes means that any errors or discrepancies may reflect on the surveyor, but that is often not the case. The problem is that many legals are prepared not by surveyors but by title agents/preparers, lawyers, or other agents.

Surveyor’s Role

The surveyor’s work is used by many other downstream users. A favorite example is what Peirce’s staff used to call “An Excepts Out.”  The original (parent/senior) legal description is shown with a subsequent legal description, which represents just a part of the original, parent property. Unfortunately, there are usually no common elements or monuments between the two legal descriptions!

Staff might understand the intent of the two descriptions, but not always. The original legal may, or may not, have been generated by a surveyor; the second was most likely not prepared by a surveyor.  It is often difficult to know the exact source of a legal and whether or not a surveyor even prepared it.  This is probably one of the best arguments for metadata we have ever seen.

As legals may be copied from one instrument to another simply via a copy machine, the originality or source of a legal can quickly become lost.  Errors can easily be propagated from one legal description to another.  It is also easy to think, “Well, if the old legal was recorded, we can just record it again!”

Legal descriptions may be prepared by a title abstractor/closer/lawyer or other realty professional. With a simple title transfer or refinance the legal description from the last sale or refinance did not change, so most people would decide to simply use the prior legal description(s) for the new instrument or deed.  This is how errors in legal descriptions easily get propagated from instrument to instrument.  Especially in this case, a surveyor may not have been involved in writing the original or parent legal description and almost certainly was not involved in the subsequent legal description.

As there is pressure to cut closing costs by the real estate community, it is easy to see fewer and fewer surveyors involved, yet with the recent housing crisis we may want to rethink these requirements.  For new replats and major new subdivisions, surveyors are usually in the loop, especially when a map/plat or plot is produced.

GIS’ Role

Cadastral mappers in a good GIS program are examining legal descriptions from recent recordings on a daily basis.  They are using the review of legal descriptions to do the following:

  • Updating assessment records for ownership information when there is no change in map boundaries. This is a simple transfer and the most prevalent type of review.
  • Determining if map boundaries have changed. (Were two adjacent properties purchased together? Did an abutting property owner purchase 40’ from the neighbors? Was a subdivision plan approved?) This is the next-most prevalent type of review.
  • For other possible line work changes depending on the extent of the GIS’ databases. These changes may involve subdivisions, platted lots or parcels, easements, right-of-ways, utilities, annexations, etc. (See the example image.)
  • If more complex GIS databases include building footprints and even 3D encoding (Z coordinates) from instruments, legals, and other updates (zoning, building permits, condominium documents).

Ensuring that the instruments are available in a timely manner is very important.  Having the instruments (legals) in a directly useful form (ASCII human/computer) should mean that errors are lessened by not rekeying (or converting/OCR) a multi-page legal description.  Hopefully this automated legal can easily be loaded into GIS or CADD formats for map updating.

Hopefully too, the clerk or recorder’s land record system can easily share data with the GIS/CADD systems used by both GIS staff and surveyors?

Clerk’s and Recorder’s Role

Clerks and recorders (usually elected officials) are the custodians of public land records generally at the county level in the U.S.  We were quite surprised to realize that most of the recorded instruments submitted for recordation are not checked or verified by the clerk or recorder!  Most of the instrument deals with the legal description and is often not checked or reviewed by clerk’s/recorder’s staff prior to recording.

Only in locales where a PIN or UPI number is required as an index on the instrument is there some modicum of checking the legal for the correct property. This PIN/UPI checking can help ensure that the map record is checked against the written legal description, perhaps as the instrument is prepared for recording (by using pubic records) by title parties. The same actions should also be accomplished by the recorder’s/clerk’s staff prior to indexing.  These actions go a long way in ensuring that the proper property is transferred.

Many of these issues are being examined by PRIA (Property Records Industry Association) in their GIS/land record integration initiative[3].

The surveyor prepares legal descriptions in CAD/survey software or a word processor probably in ASCII format. The legal is then often scanned and turned into pixels by recording software used by clerks and recorders. The ASCII text for “A” gets turned into a bunch of pixels and stored that way in the recording software. A human user can read the pixels as the letter “A” but probably rekeys the letter “A” into a new field for COGO input of the legal!

Need for Better Legal Descriptions

Peirce was responsible for two large GIS programs—one in Florida and the other in Pennsylvania—and from that experience we believe the need for robust, pristine, legal descriptions is clear in PLSS states and certainly in the original 13 colonies. Working with legals in the PLSS world was generally easier, until you got down to the smaller plats and plots when metes and bounds descriptions would come into play.  As Peirce’s Florida staff would say, “Yeah, that’s the hard stuff.”  Well, in Pennsylvania most of the legals are metes and bounds, and that is all the hard stuff.

Good mapping staff can understand the “intent” of the legal fairly easily, but when they cannot, big delays can occur in recording property, updating GIS ownership layers, and transferring property. Understanding intent puts the burden on the mapping staff.  We do not need intermediaries confusing legal descriptions in their drive to cut costs to eliminate surveyors.

For those who work on legals, we must provide more education to those who read and perhaps write simple legal descriptions[2]. Perhaps the local GIS and the survey interests can provide some training to the local title community?  Title searchers often do a 40- to 60-year search for a “chain of title.”  Imagine if the mapping staff did something similar when they were updating their maps.  Most states have a title association where professional advancement is a goal.

Next Steps

GIS staff see the need for improved legal descriptions. Surveyors are the best-trained staff to write legals, but many other parties have to read the legals, too.  GIS staff can be the catalyst in their locales to get everyone working together in using better legal descriptions. GIS staff should also be able to coordinate with assessment staff and the recorder/clerk’s office to improve workflow and access to maps, addresses, and key government records.

Both the GIS and survey communities should be reaching out to the title community to provide training and education opportunities for their professional development.

For future plats and plans, the inclusion of State Plane Coordinates referenced to the proper monuments in the legal description will also be useful in ensuring improved legal descriptions.

GIS and survey people would like to see and use better legal descriptions, so they should work to help educate the larger title community about their importance. Often better legal descriptions come from work completed by registered land surveyors, so GIS staff should be working with the survey community to ensure better legal descriptions across the board.  In the era of title insurance and the notion of “intent,” most properties can be transferred and most GIS base maps can be updated with less-than-pristine legal descriptions. When we get into such rights as minerals, air, conservation easements, common areas, and now individual parking spaces, the role of legals become even more


Glossary of Terms

computer readable format that is also human readable. This is the preferable format for humans because text can be read directly. The letter “a” is stored as an “a,” not a bunch of pixels that must be interpreted together.

COGO (COordinate GeOmetry)—software tools used by both surveyors and GIS staff to input a legal description to generate a map plot or vector file.

OCR (Optical Character Recognition)—software that can take a scanned pixel file (TIFF) and convert it to ASCII.  The accuracy of the process varies greatly depending on the quality of the source document.

PRIA (Property Records Industry Association)—professional organization of clerks and recorders of deeds.

—scanned file format used by land record vendors to encode text (legal descriptions) and graphics (maps). Results are a facsimile-type image composed of many pixels that must be interpreted to recognize the letter “a.”


1 “GIS and Survey: A Conversation Between a GIS Manager and a Surveyor,” a new URISA/G-LIS workshop.
2 “Legal Descriptions and Survey Analysis,” by Gurdon Wattles.
3 See for more information.


Elementary Surveying, 12th Edition, by C. D. Ghilani and P. R. Wolf, 2008. 931 pages.

GW’s Workshop Legal Descriptions and Survey Analysis by Gurdon. H. Wattles, 1980. 65 pages.

Survey Drafting by Gurdon H. Wattles, 1981.

Surveying Theory and Practice by R. E. Davis, F. S. Foote, J. M. Anderson and E. M. Mikhail, 1981, 992 pages.

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