Michigan recently repealed widow’s dower rights going forward after a long history of granting dower to widows.
The concept of dower rights dates back centuries and was intended to protect a surviving widow following her husband’s death. The widow could elect to retain one-third of (her deceased husband’s real estate that her deceased husband had held during their marriage. This included all real estate brought into the marriage and acquired during the marriage, whether by purchase, gift or inheritance. In Michigan, dower rights were recognized in common law, as well as in the Michigan Constitution, statutes, and land title standards.
One of the consequences of dower rights in Michigan was the statutory provision that a real estate deed show the male seller’s marital status on the document, in order to identify the spouse as having a potential dower right in the property being sold. Additionally, language needed to be included in deeds addressing the spouse’s dower rights in the property. If this was not addressed on the deed, it became an issue when the husband attempted to sell the property and created a cloud on the title. Because of this, although dower rights were considered inchoate (incomplete) until the husband’s death, the presence of dower rights prevented a husband from selling or transferring property without his spouse’s permission and completely disinheriting his wife. This was the case even if the wife was not an owner of the property. It also created an issue when the husband attempted to mortgage the property. Whether dower should be applied and how to handle it also became a unique issue in the case of same-sex marriages in Michigan.
Legislation to abolish dower in Michigan had been presented to the legislature many times, but did not pass and until recently, Michigan was the only state to continue to recognize this archaic concept. However, since the United States Supreme Court’s landmark decision in 2015 in Obergefell v. Hodges, holding that states must license same-sex marriages, Michigan’s dower was put in question again since it applied only to “wives” and not to “spouses.” Rather than extend the protection to husbands, the Michigan Legislature voted to abolish dower rights. On January 5, 2017, Governor Rick Snyder signed into law a package of bills that formally abolished dower rights in the State of Michigan. The legislative package consisted of House Bill 5520, Senate Bills 558 and 560. They are now Public Acts 378, 489 and 490 of 2016. The new law took effect April 6, 2017.
This means that a widow will no longer have the option to elect the dower share when her husband dies, unless he died prior to April 6, 2017. It also means that a wife should no longer have to join in the signing of a deed for property owned solely by her spouse. However, while Michigan works out the kinks with the new laws, it may make sense to still address dower rights in a deed, especially if the property was conveyed to the husband while the spouses were married and before the abolishment of dower. Additionally, the abolishment of dower does not affect or alter Michigan’s laws regarding “homestead”, and so a spouse may still be required to sign the mortgage for their homestead property, depending on whether the mortgage is granted to secure debt which was not incurred in the purchase of the property.
If you have any questions about dower rights, please contact us.