Tuesday, December 20, 2011
Deed construction analogous to contract construction; so is admissibility of parol evidence to interpret or clarify deed
CONSTRUCTION OF A DEED - A LEGAL QUESTION, RATHER THAN A TRIABLE ISSUE OF FACT, BUT THERE MAY BE EXCEPTIONS
The construction of a deed is ordinarily a question of law. See Terrill v. Tuckness, 985 S.W.2d 97, 101 (Tex. App.—San Antonio 1998, no pet.) (noting that rules of contract construction ordinarily apply to construction of deeds). Our primary concern in construing a deed is to ascertain the parties’ true intent as expressed in the instrument. Luckel v. White, 819 S.W.2d 459, 461 (Tex. 1991); CenterPoint Energy Houston Elec., L.L.P. v. Old TJC Co., 177 S.W.3d 425, 430 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 2005, pet. denied). “Because ‘once a dispute arises over meaning, it can hardly be expected that the parties will agree on what meaning was intended,’ courts use canons of construction to help ascertain the parties’ intent.” French v. Chevron U.S.A., Inc., 896 S.W.2d 795, 797 (Tex. 1995) (quoting Southland Royalty Co. v. Pan Am. Petroleum Corp., 378 S.W.2d 50, 59 (Tex. 1964) (Calvert, C.J., concurring)). The “four corners” rule requires us to ascertain intent from the entire instrument. See French, 896 S.W.2d at 797. We must strive to harmonize all of the deed’s parts, construing the deed to give effect to all of its provisions. Luckel, 819 S.W.2d at 462; CenterPoint Energy, 177 S.W.3d at 430.
PAROL EVIDENCE RULE GENERALLY APPLIES UNLESS THERE IS AMBIGUITY
Extrinsic evidence of intent is admissible only if the deed is ambiguous on its face. See Friendswood Dev. Co. v. McDade & Co., 926 S.W.2d 280, 283 (Tex. 1996); CenterPoint Energy, 177 S.W.3d at 431 (“A court may consider the parties’ interpretations of the contract through extrinsic or parol evidence only after a contract is first determined to be ambiguous.”).
The decision whether the deed is ambiguous is also a question of law. See J.M. Davidson, Inc. v. Webster, 128 S.W.3d 223, 229 (Tex. 2003); see also CenterPoint Energy, 177 S.W.3d at 430. To make this determination, we look at the deed as a whole in light of the circumstances existing when the parties entered into their agreement. See CenterPoint Energy, 177 S.W.3d at 430. If the deed is worded in such a way that it can be given a definite or certain legal meaning, then it is not ambiguous and the court will be confined to the writing. See id. at 30-31. A mere disagreement about the proper interpretation of a deed, however, does not make the deed ambiguous; the instrument is ambiguous only if, after application of the rules of construction, the deed is reasonably susceptible to more than one meaning. Brown v. Havard, 593 S.W.2d 939, 942 (Tex. 1980); Universal C.I.T. Credit Corp. v. Daniel, 243 S.W.2d 154, 157 (Tex. 1951).
SOURCE: HOUSTON COURT OF APPEALS - 01-10-01002-CV - 12/15/11