Law Review: Is an assessor’s parcel number alone a valid legal description?
There are all sorts of ways to describe real property such as a lot and block, a complete perimeter reference to a subdivision map, metes and bounds (point A to point B to point C to point D) description, as well as using an assessor’s parcel number (“APN”). The preferred way to describe real property is a combination of the above.
Today’s case explores whether using only an APN qualifies as a valid legal description of real property. Real property of course is land and anything built on it – as opposed to personal property like furniture, equipment, cars and practically everything else.
FORECLOSURE OF HOME
In 2017, the Chopras lost their home in a foreclosure. The foreclosing lender was paid what it was owed from the foreclosure sale, but there was extra money from the sale called surplus proceeds. Two junior lienholders filed claims to receive the surplus funds. They are as follows.
DEED OF TRUST V. TAX LIEN
Rajindar Mehta received and recorded a 2004 Deed of Trust signed by the Chopras, which, I must say is a bit suspect because 4 there was no consideration.
Then there is the California Department of Tax and Fee Administration which recorded a 2008 tax lien against the Chopras.
There you have it, the battle of the subordinate lienholders – looking for payment. The trial court ruled for the Department of Tax concluding Mehta’s deed of trust legal description, which primarily was an assessor’s parcel number, was an insufficient legal description – so an invalid deed of trust.
APN AS A LEGAL DESCRIPTION
A lot of folks in our region work in the world of real estate, buying and selling properties and acting as agents, title companies and such. It is not uncommon to see property described by an assessor’s parcel number, but it is generally accompanied with a lot and block number or some other legal description.
The question analyzed in this case, and which I tee up for your education, is whether describing property solely as an APN constitutes a valid legal description for a conveyance.
An APN is a designation for tax assessments only and it is not a legitimate legal description for a deed or other conveyance such as a deed of trust. An APN may work for a road maintenance agreement or some other less formal document, but as the Fourth Appellate District Court of Appeal concluded, “While we find no reason to disagree that a parcel number could theoretically satisfy the law’s requirement for sufficient legal description of a property, we also find a parcel number by itself does not necessarily demonstrate the actual physical location of a property. …parcel numbers…need not correspond with actual subdivisions, lots, tracts or other legal divisions or boundaries of land.”
The Court of Appeal called Mehta’s deed of trust ambiguous at best, reciting: “An APN… is a numerical identifier associated with a particular piece of property for property tax assessment purposes.” California Department of Tax is entitled to the surplus foreclosure proceeds.
WISHING YOU AND YOUR FAMILY A HAPPY AND SAFE (AND SNOWY) THANKSGIVING!
Jim Porter is an attorney with Porter Simon licensed in California and Nevada, with offices in Truckee and Tahoe City, California, and Reno, Nevada. Jim’s practice areas include: real estate, development, construction, business, HOA’s, contracts, personal injury, accidents, mediation and other transactional matters. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or http://www.portersimon.com.