Should the Court have allowed extrinsic evidence when determining a testator’s intent?
ConocoPhillips Co. v. Ramirez 599 S.W.3d 296 (Tex. 2020) held that a devise of all right, title, and interest in and to a named tract did not include the mineral estate because the testatrix intended that the bequest would be limited to the surface. The Ramirez family owned a 7,016‑acre tract of land in Zapata County. Leonor executed a will in 1987, devising 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 her living children, Leon Oscar, Jr., Minerva, and Rosalina. She devised the residuary of her estate to her three children, Leon Oscar, Sr., Ileana, and Rodolfo. When the Will was created, and immediately prior to her death, Leonor owned 1/2 of the surface of the Las Piedras Ranch, and an undivided 1/4 interest in the minerals underlying the larger 7,016‑acre tract. After Leonor’s death, her three children signed several oil and gas leases. One was assigned to ConocoPhillips. The extension bonus was paid based on the assumption that mineral ownership in Las Piedras was the same as to the rest of the 7,016‑acre tract. Leon Oscar, Jr., and Rosalina (“Ramirez”) claimed that the mineral interest in Las Piedras Ranch passed to Leon Oscar, Sr., as part of his life estate and sued Conoco, et al., for damages. The trial court found for Ramirez and ordered judgment against Conoco. The court of appeals affirmed. The Texas Supreme Court reversed.
In construing the Will, the Texas Supreme Court focused on the testator’s intent at the time the Will was executed. While intent “must be ascertained from the language found within the four corners of the will,” a court may consider circumstances existing when the Will is executed if a term is “open to more than one construction.” The Court concluded that since “Ranch ‘Las Piedras’” is capitalized and in quotation marks in the Will, the term must have a specific meaning. Accordingly, the Court reviewed documents not within the four corners of the Will, and examined a 1975 partition agreement which identifies a “Las Piedras Pasture” tract and expressly states only the surface was covered. The Court also examined a 1978 exchange agreement which states that Leon Oscar, Sr., and Ileana were partitioned the surface to the tract known as “Las Piedras Ranch” and effects conveyance of all right, title, and interest to the surface of a tract of land known as “LAS PIEDRAS PASTURE.” According to the Court, the agreements clearly designate the tract “known as Las Piedras Ranch and Las Piedras Pasture as a surface estate only.”
Ramirez argued that since Las Piedras Ranch wasn’t contiguous with the rest of the estate, the family meant to treat the minerals separately. The Court cited a prior conveyance in which the family separated the surface estate but declined to separate the mineral estate as “strong evidence that the family intended that their ownership of all the estate minerals be joint.”
The holding is significant because it creates additional uncertainty when a testator devises a named tract. As a general rule, a reservation must be expressed through clear, unequivocal, and unmistakable language. To create a reservation, courts required that it must appear from the instrument that the reservation was intended, and appropriate words expressed the intent. As a result of the Court’s ruling, there will always be uncertainty when a testator devises a named tract of land, and the identity of the devisee differs from the devisees named in the residuary clause.
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