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How to interpret deeds

How to Interpret Deeds - A Glossary

For an introduction to the content of deeds, see: Title Deeds

Note: words in bold appear in the Glossary
Deeds may look difficult things to interpret, even in catalogued form; mainly it is a question of understanding the layout and some key words and phrases

What Constitutes Deeds

Basically any document affecting title, that is to say proof of ownership, of the land in question. The land may have buildings upon it, or not. The following documents usually comprise deeds:

- abstracts of title: showing how title to the land devolved to the party currently possessing it; such an abstract may go back several hundred years or just a few months;

- bonds: to further secure conveyances, mortgages etc., the person making the bond was "bound over" to a certain amount which became forfeit if they did not do certain things (like repay a loan) or had not told the truth (such as claiming land which did not belong to them when they conveyed it);

- conveyances: transfers of land from one party to another, usually for money (when you sell your house a conveyance is involved); early forms of conveyance included feoffments, surrenders and admissions at manor courts (if the property was copyhold), final concords, common recoveries, bargains and sales and leases and releases;

- epitomes of title: lists of previous deeds which form the title to a property;

- grants of easements [qv] for example, allowing someone to have a right of way across the land;

- maps/plans: often included in the margins of conveyances [qv] showing the land to be conveyed, mortgaged etc.;

- mortgages: a person borrowing money on security of their house; in the past, before about the middle of the nineteenth century, mortgages were usually between individuals; most people did not involve banks but borrowed money from one another, the person lending the money usually charging 5% interest. The lender was, in effect, investing his or her money;

- parish register transcripts: to prove the status of individuals with claim to title to the land concerned, e.g. whether they were dead or married or had children;

- wills and administrations: in which the land owner devised [i.e. willed] his/her land to others

Structure of a Deed

Most deeds are broken down into a number of sections as follows:

Parties – simply the people involved in the deed; it is important to remember that the first party is usually the one instigating the action, i.e. they are the person borrowing money (if a mortgage), selling their property (if a conveyance) etc.

Recitals – these pieces of information tell you what has led up to the present deed, for example a person's will, previous conveyances and mortgages etc.

Operative Part/s – what is actually happening, e.g. a conveyance from one party to another

Habendum – from the Latin phrase "Habendum et Tenendum" meaning "to have and to hold" this indicates the party who now has title to the land, any trustees and any conditions, usually the party who will inherit the title on the death of the current title holder

Covenants – what the parties promise to do now, e.g. produce earlier deeds as proof of title to the land if title is challenged

Witnesses – people witnessing the signatures of the parties

Endorsements – things literally endorsed (i.e. written on the back), most often these involve subsequent sales of parts of the land or redemption of mortgages


ABSOLUTE SURRENDER: the method by which copyhold land was transferred from one party to another for good [i.e. with no conditions attached] – working like a conveyance of freehold land

ABSTRACT OF TITLE: a document drawn up by solicitors showing how title to the land devolved to the party currently possessing it; such an abstract may go back several hundred years or just a few months; they were usually drawn up just prior to a sale

ADMINISTRATION: if a person died intestate their money, goods and possessions passed to their next of kin via an administration which had the same form in law as a will

ADMISSION: a person or persons with title to a piece of copyhold land were admitted at a Manorial Court and this admission was taken as proof of their title to the land

APPURTENANCES: other things belonging to the land such as, for example, yards, gardens and orchards or something intangible such as a common right

ASSIGNMENT: a transfer leasehold land or transfer of a mortgage on land

ASSIGNMENT TO ATTEND THE INHERITANCE: an assignment of the remaining term of years in a mortgage by demise to a trustee after the mortgage itself has been redeemed

ATTORNEY, POWER OF: the power of one person to act for another if, typically, that person were out of the country or incapacitated

BARGAIN AND SALE: an earlier form of conveyance often used in the sixteenth century and by executors to convey land; the bargainee or person to whom the land was bargained and sold, became seised of the land

BEERHOUSE: a licensed premises allowed to sell beer and/or cider but not spirits

BENEFICIARY: a person gaining something from a will

BEQUEATH/BEQUEST: personal estate in a will is bequeathed i.e. transferred by the testator to the beneficiaries

BOND: an agreement by the person giving it (called the obligor) either to perform certain actions or as to the state of something (such as seisin of land); if the actions are not performed or the state of the thing is not as stated the other party (called the oblige) is awarded a sum of money

CHANCERY/COURT OF CHANCERY: the former highest court of the realm, the powers of which are now vested in the High Court of Justice, which has a Chancery Division; cases were often bought to the court to settle seisin of title; but beware, such cases do not always show existence of a real dispute, the case may be a legal fiction simply brought to prove good title

CHIROGRAPH: an old word for a deed often used in the expression "Chirograph of a Fine"

CLOSE: a piece of inclosed land

COMMON RECOVERY: a process by which land was transferred instead of using a conveyance; a common recovery was a piece of legal fiction involving the party transferring the land, a notional tenant and the party acquiring the land; the tenant was ejected to effect the transfer

COMMON RIGHT: some land had, as an appurtenance the right to graze a certain number of specified animals on the common land of the parish

CONDITIONAL SURRENDER: the method by which copyhold land was temporarily transferred from one party to another usually as security for a mortgage

CONSIDERATION: the thing for which land was transferred from one party to another, usually, of course, a sum of money, but not necessarily, a parent might convey land to a child "in consideration of the natural love and affection etc."

CONVEYANCE: transfer of freehold land from one party to another, today the standard way in which freehold land is transferred but, before the invention of the modern conveyance in the late nineteenth century, effected by such means as by feoffment, lease and release, or bargain and sale, for example

COPYHOLD: land that belonged to a Manor and was, notionally, property of the Lord of the Manor. The Lord, through his steward, ratified any transfer of land by surrender of the transferring party at a manorial court and admission of the new owner. Gradually copyhold land was enfranchised until the Law of Property Act 1922 abolished copyhold status, converting all such land into freehold

COVENANT: an agreement by one party to another

COVENANT FOR PRODUCTION OF TITLE DEEDS: an agreement to produce deeds not handed over the purchaser as proof of that party's title

COVENANT TO SURRENDER: an agreement to surrender copyhold land, this served, effectively, as a conveyance would serve if the land were freehold

COURT ROLL: a roll on which all the doings of a manorial court were recorded; so far as deeds are concerned, this means admissions to and surrenders of land and therefore proof of title

DEED/S: any document bearing on title to land

DEFORCIANT: the defendant in a final concord or common recovery, in other words, the person transferring the land
DEMISE - A lease or conveyance for life or years. Loosely used to describe any conveyance, whether in fee, for life, or for years.

DEVISE/DEVISING: real estate in a will is devised i.e. transferred by the testator to the devisee/s

DEVISEE: someone receiving real estate from the testator in a will

DOWER[Y]: a widow had a right to one third of her dead husband's property; trustees are often appointed in deeds to bar dower, that is to say, prevent the widow claiming it

EASEMENT: classically defined as a privilege without profit; usually the owner of one piece of land (called the dominant tenement) will have an easement over a neighbouring piece of land (called the servient tenement) such as a right of way

EASTER: one of the terms during which legal business was transacted, along with Hilary and Michaelmas

ENDORSEMENT: something written on the back of a deed

ENFRANCHISEMENT: the process by which a copyhold title was changed to a freehold

ENTAIL: land entailed is set to pass from one owner to another in a certain succession, for example from a husband, on his death, to his wife, on her death to their eldest son etc.

EPITOME OF TITLE: a list of deeds comprising title to a piece of land

EQUITABLE MORTGAGE: this may apply to a number of different mortgage processes but is most commonly encountered as the mortgagor simply depositing the title deeds to the land acting as security with the mortgage without any kind of written mortgage deed

EXECUTOR/EXECUTRIX: an executor is the person charged with proving a will; an executrix is a female executor

FAMILY SETTLEMENT: settlement whereby land is set to descend within a family in a certain manner, i.e. setting up an entail

FEE/FEE SIMPLE: freehold land is said to be land held in fee simple, absolute in possession

FEOFEE: a trustee who holds land without specified conditions

FEOFFMENT: a simple transfer of freehold land in a ceremony technically called livery of seisin; an early form of conveyance

FINAL CONCORD: a fictitious legal case in which the deforciant was deprived of the land which was given to the querent; usually used as a way of further proving title of the purchaser after a transfer by feoffment, for example; the term came from the Latin phrase which began the document "hic est finalis concordia" or "this is the final agreement"

FINE: common term for a final concord, the form most commonly encountered by a fine sur conizance de droit come ceo etc.

FREEHOLD: land held in fee simple, that is to say the owner is the absolute owner; the great bulk of modern land in England is freehold; in earlier times a freeholder may have paid a fixed rent to the "chief lord of the fees"

GIFT: any transfer of real estate in the medieval period was described as a gift even if money changed hands

HABENDUM: the clause of a conveyance etc. in which the ownership of the land is described along with any trusteeships etc., from the Latin phrase which began the clause "Habendum et Tenendum" meaning "to have and to hold"

HEREDITAMENTS: every kind of property which can be inherited, hereditaments are, technically, of two types, corporeal hereditaments meaning anything that has a physical form and, thus, all land and incorporeal hereditaments which are insubstantial such as a common right

HERIOT: a fine paid on transfer of copyhold land on the death of the previous tenant; it might be a money payment of forfeiture of the tenant's "best beast"; abolished by the Copyhold Acts 1852 and 1858

HILARY: one of the terms during which legal business was transacted, along with Easter and Michaelmas

INCLOSURE: in the Middle Ages parishes had one or more open fields in which land owners had strips of land. The process of inclosure saw these open fields divided into smaller fields and inclosed with hedges, walls or fences and owners of the old strips given a proportionate acreage of the new fields; Bedfordshire saw a considerable number of parishes inclosed by Parliamentary Inclosure, i.e. local Acts of Parliament

INDENTURE: a type of deed, one with an indented top, which could be joined to a copy or counterpart. One copy would be kept by one party to a deed and one by the other; the counterpart, or second copy was usually kept by the tenant in a lease or the person conveying the land in a transfer

INTESTATE: someone who dies without making a will is said to die intestate

LEASE: a temporary grant of land for a term of years by the lessor to the lessee; leases might be for a specific period such as twenty one years, for the life of the lessee, a three life lease (valid until after the deaths of all three named people with an upper limit of 99 years) or a perpetual lease granted for a period such as 1,000 years

LEASE & RELEASE: the most common method of conveying freehold property before the introduction of the modern conveyance in the late nineteenth century. The lease was granted for a year then, the following day, the lessor released their right of ownership in return for the consideration

LEASEHOLD: lad held by a lessee by lease from the lessor; leasehold land is not conveyed, it is assigned

LESSEE: the party leasing land from the owner, or lessor

LESSOR: the owner of land leased to a lessee

MARRIAGE SETTLEMENT: a settlement made before a marriage (sometimes afterwards) involving land held by trustees for the benefit of husband, wife and children; often the longest and most complicated of deeds

MANORIAL COURT: the court held by the Lord of the Manor through his steward and producing court rolls of business transacted

MESSUAGE: a term for property, usually a dwelling house

MICHAELMAS: one of the terms during which legal business was transacted, along with Hilary and Easter

MOIETY: half a piece of land, property etc.

MORTGAGE: from the Latin "dead pledge"; a loan secured by land which is temporarily transferred from the mortgagor to the mortgagee

MORTGAGE BY DEMISE: the most common form of early mortgage in which the land acting as security was transferred to the mortgage by a perpetual lease for a term such as 500 or 1,000 years, on redemption the land was transferred back to the mortgagor and the remaining term of years assigned to a trustee

MORTGAGEE: the party loaning money in a mortgage

MORTGAGOR: the party borrowing money in a mortgage

OPERATIVE PART: that part of a conveyance, feoffment etc. which describes what is happening

PARTY: a person, group of people, company etc. fulfilling a particular role in a deed such as mortgage, mortgagor, lessor, lessee, trustee, seller, buyer etc.

PERSONAL ESTATE/PERSONALTY: those possessions which are not land or property such as money, shares, furniture etc.

PIGHTLE: another name for a close

PRINCIPAL: the amount lent in a mortgage

PROBATE/PROVING A WILL: the process of establishing the validity of a will

QUERANT: the plaintiff in a final concord or common recovery, i.e. the purchaser of the land

QUITCLAIM: a deed renouncing any rights to land ["Quietus Clamatus" in Latin]

QUITRENT: rent payable to the Lord of the Manor, originally paid by a tenant of copyhold land to free him from the obligation of military service, later simply a way for the Lord of the Manor to make money from his position

REAL ESTATE/REALTY: land and property owned by an individual

REDEMPTION/REDEEMED: when a mortgage is paid off it is said to be redeemed

RELEASE: the second part of a LEASE AND RELEASE

REMAINDER: the word used to indicate that a person stands to inherit, thus in the expression to A, remainder to B, remainder to C, A is the current owner, on their death B inherits and on the death of B, C inherits

RESTRICTIVE COVENANT: an agreement against doing something, for example, extending a house beyond the building line, or using a dwelling house as a public house

RIGHT OF WAY: the right of specified individuals to go from point A to point B over the land of another specified individual or individual

SEISIN/SEISED or SEIZIN/SEIZED: possession of freehold land

SURRENDER: see absolute surrender and conditional surrender

TAIL: see entail

TENEMENT: a description of property, usually part of another building, thus a messuage may be divided into two tenements

TESTATOR/TESTATRIX: the person writing their will, a testatrix is a female testator

TITLE: the right of ownership of land

TRUSTEE: a person holding land on behalf of another for specified uses, such as barring dower, for example; see also feoffee

USES: the purposes for which land is held by a trustee

WARRANTY: an undertaking by one party to support another's title