Recently the Texas Supreme Court decided an interesting case in which it examined whether a will had given a surface estate or a mineral estate to the beneficiaries of the will. In ConocoPhillips et al v. Leon Oscar Ramirez Jr. et al, the testatrix, Leonor Juan, executed a will in 1987 and died the next year. The will devised a life estate in “all of [her] right, title and interest in and to
Ranch ‘Las Piedras’”to her son Leon Oscar Sr. with the remainder to his living children in equal shares and devised the residual of her estate equally to her three children, Leon Oscar Sr.,
Ileana, and Rodolfo. In this case, Leon Oscar Sr.’s children claim that Leonor’s residual estate did not include the mineral interest in Las Piedras Ranch but that it passed to Leon Oscar Sr. as part of his life estate.
The Court examined many years’ worth of leases, deeds and partitions in the opinion, using charts to help clarify the rather complex title history. In the trial court, the Plaintiffs were awarded over $3.000,000 each in royalties and over $1,000,000 in attorneys fees, for a total judgment of about $12,000,000, and the Court of Appeals affirmed that judgment.
The Supreme Court reversed. In reaching its decision, the Court cited two rules of construction that are often relied upon by Texas courts: “In construing a will, the court’s focus is on the testatrix’s intent”, which “must be ascertained from the language found within the four corners of the will”, if possible, and “determined as of the time the will is executed”. “[W]hen a term in a will ‘is open to more than one construction,’ a court can consider ‘the circumstances existing when the will was executed.’” In reviewing all the documents in the chain of title and applying these principles, the Court concluded that Leonor gave her son her interest in the surface for life, but gave her interest in the minerals in the 7,016-acre family estate equally to her three children.
This case illustrates how important the precise language of the documents in the title history of property are, but also, if the document is open to more than one interpretation, how important extraneous circumstances can be to determine the intent of the parties. If you have questions about your land or mineral ownership, you may want to consult an attorney to review, not only the language of the documents in your chain of title, but also, whether those documents are capable of more than one meaning, and so whether extraneous circumstances have to be consulted.