If you want to know how to find out who owns the mineral rights under your land, or find out if you do, then the first stop in your quest should probably be the county clerk’s office (free) and/or a private abstract office (not free) in the county where your land is located. Both are usually located in or near the county courthouse, and are where you will find all the filed land records having to do with your property.
From the land records you can construct a “chain of title.” A chain of title is simply a sequential record of documents showing how the mineral rights have changed hands through the years.
Your chain of title will be created using conveyances listed in index books at the courthouse or abstract office. You will need to know the legal description of the property in order to know which tract index book to look in; or you can search by name using the grantor/grantee index book if you have some names to work with but aren’t sure of the legal description. Either index book will tell you where to find the actual conveyances that pertain to your land.
You should include in your chain of title all conveyances affecting the tract you are researching, and will also want to look for and examine any affidavits, liens, foreclosures, tax sales, divorce settlements, probate files, mortgages etc. that might affect the property as many of these are “conveyances” as well. Some of these documents may only be filed in the court clerk’s records (a/k/a district clerk) rather than in the county clerk’s records, so be aware of that. If you come to a “dead end” or have a “gap” in your title that you can’t account for, you might want to check for probates or divorce decrees in the court clerk’s office. The court clerk’s office is also usually in the courthouse, as is the county clerk’s office in most cases.
Sometimes gaps will occur in the chain of title. A gap occurs when you’re unable to determine from the records how a certain grantee came into title. An example would be when you find someone granting a lease to an oil company, indicating they do own something, but can’t find the “source deed” where they acquired the interest. If you do find a gap in the title (i.e. an apparent missing conveyance) you may want to check for probates, divorce decrees, foreclosure sales etc. that you may have missed or that may be filed in the court clerk’s office or the tax assessor’s office. A gap in the title could also be caused by a faulty legal description and the resulting misfiling of the deed in another location. A misfiled deed with an inaccurate legal description would need to be corrected in order to pass title to the next owner.
If a former owner defaulted on a loan, and a bank, rather than the former owner, sold the property at auction to a new owner, it might be easy to miss the transfer because the grantor would be a bank, rather than the former owner you would expect to find while scanning through the index books. This is why you should always pay attention to mortgages when you come across them. If no release of the mortgage is filed, then there’s a good chance it’s either not been paid off or the borrower has defaulted on the loan, thereby possibly losing their mineral interest to the bank.
In other cases, a missing conveyance really will be missing and you will therefore have a “cloud” on the title until something is found or filed of record that will remove it.
During your search, you should examine all the records carefully and look for language anywhere in surface deeds that state the seller is reserving all or part of the mineral rights under the land being sold. The mineral estate and the surface estate can actually be split off from one another, and commonly are. So while it’s likely that the first owner was granted both the surface and minerals by the government or claimed both when claiming the land, it’s probable the estate has been “split” over the years, especially in areas where there has been lots of oil and gas production.
Royalty deeds may also be found, which are not the same as mineral deeds as they do not actually transfer the mineral rights, but only a right to receive royalty from the minerals if and when they are actually produced. The grantor of the royalty deed would still retain actual ownership of the minerals, so the title to the minerals would not transfer to the grantee on the royalty deed.
It’s important to have at least a general idea of which conveyances actually transfer ownership of the minerals, and which only transfer certain rights. It’s also important to actually READ each conveyance to determine what it really is. Just because it says “Mineral Deed” at the top of the page, does not necessarily mean it IS a mineral deed. It’s what’s in the body of the deed that determines what is being conveyed (i.e. royalty rights or minerals rights.) If this part is confusing to you, I’d suggested doing some research on this before attempting to run title on your own.
In states that use the Public Land Survey System (PLSS) of land division, your legal description will always include a section (or part thereof), a township, and a range. An example of a Public Land Survey System (PLSS) legal description would be “the Southeast Quarter of Section 12, Township 10 North, Range 22 West, Beckham County, Oklahoma; or simply SE/4 12-10N-22W. This legal description describes 160 acres. A full section of land generally has 640 acres, so it follows that a quarter-section would have 160 acres. A good link that discusses the land survey system, and includes info on exactly what a “lot” is can be found here!
Descriptions in Texas and other states that do not follow the PLSS system may be in the form of “metes and bounds” descriptions or may include legal descriptions that contain such terms as a “block”, a survey name or abstract number of the survey, and a section number. In states that do not use the PLSS system you may only have access to a “grantor/grantee” index in the county clerk’s office and therefore would be searching by name, rather than by legal description, which can be very time-consuming. In many such states however, the abstract office adjacent to most courthouses have “tract indexes” available where you could search by legal description rather than name, though they will likely charge you to look at their records, unlike the public courthouses.
It is unlikely that all the minerals under your land have always been owned by the same party, or that one party owns all of them now, so you will need to find ALL of the instances where the minerals have changed hands over the years and keep track of the divisions from the beginning in order to determine who owns what currently. This isn’t always a simple task, which is why landmen, attorneys, and other professionals get paid so much to research mineral ownership and prepare title opinions. An experienced landman often charges between $250 and $500 per day to “run title” for clients, plus expenses.
If you are having difficulties with your search, or want to just SIMPLIFY the process, you could hire a professional to do the work for you, or you could pay the local abstract company to prepare a “take-off” for you. A take-off is simply a listing of the books and pages where the actual deeds and other conveyances pertaining to your specific property can be found in the courthouse records. You can tell them you want a list of only the documents that actually convey mineral rights title, rather than a “complete” list that would include land, oil and gas leases, paid mortgages etc. A “take off” is cheaper than a full abstract of title (which would include copies of the conveyances) and would save you the time and effort of searching through the index books yourself and deciding which documents actually affected the title. You could bring the take-off list with you to the courthouse and go directly to the books that way, thus allowing you to more quickly put together your chain of title.
Some take-offs will have notes in the margins describing the conveyances in brief, which may mean you won’t actually have to GO to the courthouse to determine who owns the minerals if you’re sharp. The downside is that take-offs are usually not cheap and you MUST make sure you’re dealing with a quality abstract company who understands what you’re trying to do. Some counties do not have a quality abstract office and in such cases it would be far better to look through the index books at the courthouse yourself. Usually the court clerk’s office will be familiar enough with the local abstract office to tell you if they’re any good or not…just make sure not to ask them while someone who works for the abstract office is standing there (they frequent the clerk’s office as well.)
If you happen to know that some or all of the minerals under your land have recently been leased, you could check the index books for current or recent leases and get the probable current owners names directly off the leases. If you get lucky and can confirm to your satisfaction that one or two lessors own ALL the minerals under your land, then your search is over, or perhaps one of the owners will know how to contact the other owners.
Note that the lease itself will NOT necessarily describe what the lessor (mineral owner) owns, it merely describes the tract that was leased by the oil company. All the owners of minerals within that tract will have the same description on their lease. There may be several owners within the tract leased by the oil company (i.e the SW/4); so you will still need to do a title search to determine how much each owns, but having the names of current or former owners of the minerals will make it a bit easier; and if the lease is current enough, you may be able to just contact a mineral owner and ask them if they know anything about any other current owners under you land, or if they are the only one. Depending on how definitive you need your title check to be, this method may suffice.
Title work is NOT always simple, and so if you are doing this research for anything other than curiosity, you should pay close attention and be able to interpret conveyances such as quit-claim deeds, mineral deeds, royalty deeds etc. on a professional level. If you are not able to do that, I would consider hiring someone to do this research for you if it absolutely needs to be accurate.
I hope this entry will enlighten those of you out there who are wondering what’s involved in tracking down mineral ownership.
Frederick M. “Mick” Scott CMM RPL
Courtesy of: The Mineral Hub