The Deal with Dower

171 years ago, the dower law was codified in Michigan. Because women were prohibited from both working and owning property, dower ensured women were provided for in the event of their husband’s passing. In short, if a husband passed away, his wife would be entitled to one-third of the value of the real estate held by her husband for her lifetime.

While dower’s intentions were good at the time, its purpose has become as antiquated as the idea that women cannot own property. Its constitutionality was also in question, as it only applied to a wife, and never a husband. It is also possible that the legality of same sex marriages paved the way for the abolition of dower because it does not apply to same sex couples, which would now likely also be unconstitutional.

Up until now, women had three choices if their husband predeceased them: if a will existed, she could abide by its direction. If a will did not exist, she could take her intestate share provided by law. Or, she could elect to take her dower rights. The problem with this option is that it was almost never the best option for a wife, so it was almost never used.

Despite dower’s infrequent use, the fact that it still existed created many problems for modern real estate transactions. Deeds were required to state whether a man was married, for example. And even if a married man owned property in his name alone, his wife was required to sign off on any sale of the property to prevent her from being able to later assert her dower rights against the property. If the wife failed to sign away her dower rights, a cloud on the title resulted and no future owner held clear title to the property until the wife signed off her dower rights.

Death to Dower in Michigan

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder signed a bill taking Michigan’s dower law off the books. The law took effect last Friday, April 7, 2017. Prior to this, Michigan was the only state that preserved a wife’s dower rights. The repeal will make real estate transfers easier for everyone, especially with the recently increasing interest in Detroit and its properties.

It is important to note though that dower is not completely dead. A wife may still elect her dower right if her husband died prior to the new law taking effect.

If you stumble across a dower issue, or any other clouds in the title transfer process, give us a call at 248.399.3300, and we would be happy to handle all of your quiet title needs.

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