Co-author Kelley Clark Morris

Generally, if your will leaves your beloved “all … right, title and interest in and to”, said beloved would receive the entirety of your interest, whether a surface estate, mineral estate, or both. But in ConocoPhillips, et al. v. Ramirez, et al., the Texas Supreme Court looked beyond the four corners of the will in question and concluded that—based on family mineral leasing history—only the surface estate was devised.

If you don’t want to burn the 20 percent of your daily caloric intake that fuels your brain just to memorize the Ramirez family tree, leave with this takeaway: When a term in a will is open to more than one construction, a court can consider the circumstances existing when the will was executed.

The facts and a long history

In 1941, Ildefonso died and left 7,016 acres in Zapata County consisting of noncontiguous tracts to his two children Leon Juan and Felicidad. The brother and sister then partitioned the surface (each taking 3,508 acres) and severed the minerals (leaving each with an undivided 1/2 interest under the entire 7,016 acres). This family dispute is among Leon Juan’s descendants.

Leon Juan died and left his interests 1/2 to his wife Leonor and the remainder in equal shares to his three children, Leon Oscar Sr., Ileana, and Rodolfo. Thus, each child inherited a 1/6th interest in Leon Juan’s 3,508 surface acres and an undivided 1/12th interest in the minerals in both tracts. The three siblings and mother Leonor partitioned the surface estate and executed conveyances to swap some of the tracts. Each conveyance specified that it did “not … include oil, gas and other minerals which” were “to remain undivided.”

Following the partition, Leonor and the three children divided Leon Juan’s 3,508 acre surface estate into three tracts, one of which was “Las Piedras Ranch”, a tract not contiguous with the other property.

Leonor executed the will in question in 1987 and then died. At that time she shared ownership of the surface of Las Piedras Ranch with son Leon Oscar Sr., each owning an undivided 1/2 fee interest. Her will devised a life estate in “all of [her] right, title and interest in and to Ranch ‘Las Piedras’” to son Leon Oscar Sr. with the remainder to his living children in equal shares. The residuary was left equally to her three children, Leon Oscar Sr., Ileana, and Rodolfo.

In 1990, the siblings and their aunt Felicidad signed a lease extension with EOG (later transferred to ConocoPhillips) of the minerals under Las Piedras Ranch. The extension treated the siblings as equal fee owners of the minerals under the Ranch.

Leon Oscar Sr. died in 2006, terminating his life estate, which passed to his three children, Leon Oscar Jr., Rosalinda, and Minerva. In 2010, those three sued aunt and uncle Ileana and Rodolfo,  EOG, and ConocoPhillips, seeking a declaration that their father’s life estate under grandmother Leonor’s will included her interest in the minerals beneath Las Piedras Ranch.

The trial court agreed and awarded Leonor’s grandchildren a $12 million judgment against ConocoPhillips, which the court of appeals affirmed, holding that the will included her interest in the minerals under Las Piedras Ranch.

The result

A unanimous Supreme Court reversed and rendered judgment for ConocoPhillips. Leonor’s bequest conveyed a life estate in only the surface of Las Piedras Ranch; her undivided interest in the 7,016 mineral acres passed in the residuary of her estate equally to her three children.

The court looked beyond the four corners of Leonor’s will to resolve the dispute because the will’s use of the term “Ranch ‘Las Piedras’” to identify the interest devised opened the will to more than one construction. The bequest of the life estate capitalized “Ranch ‘Las Piedras’” and placed the name in quotation marks, indicating a specific meaning to Leonor and her family. The history of family conveyances shows that Las Piedras Ranch referred to only the surface estate and, moreover, that the family always intended the minerals to be jointly owned. This interpretation was supported by Leon Oscar Sr.’s participation in the lease extension.

Your musical interlude, a little late.