When you hear the word “dower”, what do you think of? Many will say it reminds them of “dowery”. Well, it is not really dowery. We are not talking about a sum of money or property that a father gives to a future son-in-law when he marries the father’s daughter. Dower is a holdover law from a LONG, long time ago (but not necessarily in a galaxy far, far away). In short, dower was a right that a married woman had in the real estate owned by her husband. To be exact (and to cause you a headache), it is technically “the use during her natural life, of 1/3 part of all the lands whereof her husband was seized of an estate of inheritance, at any time during the marriage, unless she is lawfully barred thereof.” It was initially instituted as a way to make sure a wife was not left destitute if her husband disinherited her and passed away. Interestingly, Michigan had no equivalent law for men. And Michigan is one of the last holdouts for dower – one of only 7 states that still have a dower right in their law.
But that will officially be no more on April 5, 2017. On January 5, 2017, the Governor signed a series of bills that abolishes dower, effective 90 days from the signing (thus, the April 5th date). This is big, big news in 3 main legal practice areas: (1) estate planning, (2) real estate law, and (3) family law.
Many families have never heard of dower. And even as a Grand Rapids, Michigan estate planning attorney, I have not had any dower cases. But, even so, you may have had to take certain steps with real estate because of it, and I have certainly had to take certain steps in client documents because of it. The most common dower implication is that when a married man owns property in his individual and decides to sell it, his wife still needs to sign the deed even though her name was not on it. It does not matter whether the property was purchased before or after the marriage – she has to sign in both cases. After April 5, 2017 that will no longer be the case.
Dower was an important legal component back when Michigan had no “forced share” law for a spouse to inherit by. Based on Michigan law allowing a spouse the right to a certain amount of his/her deceased spouse’s assets, it seems a good time to bid adieu to dower. This is a positive change for Michigan law and updates it in light of current inheritance law.