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Deed Interpretation, Vagueness, Extrinsic Evidence

Deeds are required to transfer title to real property. Sometimes, confusing language is used in deeds to where it is unclear when a certain person receives property. Like with contracts, the interpretation of deeds in Missouri centers on ascertaining the intention of the grantor (i.e., the person executing the deed and conveying title) from the deed itself. Robert Jackson Real Estate Co., Inc. v. James, 755 S.W.2d 343, 346-47 (Mo. Ct. App. 1988). Therefore, courts focus on the “four corners” of the document to determine its meaning. It is generally impermissible to consider things outside of the document (i.e., extrinsic evidence) when interpreting the deed. 

An exception to this is if the deed is vague, unclear and ambiguous. An ambiguity arises when the terms are susceptible to more than one meaning so that reasonable persons may fairly and honestly differ in their construction of the terms. Chehval v. St. John’s Mercy Medical Center, 958 S.W.2d 36, 38 (Mo. Ct. App. 1997). The ambiguity must appear from the deed itself; extrinsic evidence cannot be used to create an ambiguity. If an ambiguity exists, then the Court may entertain extrinsic evidence (e.g., other documents about the meaning of the deed, oral statements) to reach a resolution.