why have erroneous descriptions of real property historically occurred?
3 Answers from Attorneys
Erroneous legal descriptions of real property have occurred in the past for almost every conceivable reason. I'll give you a short list of some of the more common (I think) reasons; maybe others can add to the list:
1. Surveyor's errors, including inaccurate instruments, improper use of instruments, failure to read instruments properly, failure to write down observations accurately, and starting from the wrong base point, e.g., starting from the NW corner of lot 133 instead of the NW corner of lot 134, etc.
2. Transcription errors by title companies, lawyers, realtors, owners - e.g., copying 73 degrees 42 minutes and 11 seconds ENE as 73 degrees and 11 minutes ENE.
3. Deliberate attempts at fraud.
4. Changes in man-made landmarks, e.g., "147 feet from the centerline of the North & South Railroad" written in 1928 doesn't help much when the railroad was relocated 40 feet from its original location in a 1957 curve-alignment project, or was abandoned altogether in 1975.
5. Changes in natural landmarks, e.g., "500 feet from the centerline of the Eel River" in a 1909 deed isn't very helpful when the river floods and changes course -- sometimes slightly, sometimes substantially -- every year. Or, "188 feet 45 degrees WNW from the big maple tree" won't be much help when the tree is cut down and the stump rots.
6. Governmental changes, such as re-assigning or re-defining assessor parcel numbers, re-naming streets, combining parcels due to zoning rules, etc.
Erroneous descriptions of real property have occurred for a great many reasons. The most common one is what is called "scrivener's error," which means they were just written down wrong. Until the late 1980's you couldn't just cut and past text. It had to be transcribed by hand or typewriter every time you wanted text in one document repeated in another. Until the advent of portable lasers, and now high resolution aerial measurement and GPS, surveying was an art, not a science too. So surveys were at best a really good approximation of where boundary lines were. The more difficult the terrain the less accurate they became too, because distances and boundaries had to be determined by math as much as measurement - how good is your trigonometry, done by hand, no calculator.
People are lazy, and use cut and paste, and cut and paste the wrong legal description while they were interrupted playing tetris or candy crush saga or whatever game it was this week. Or perhaps some people's fingers are too fat for the keyboard.