By Swogger Bruce & Millar, Jan 31 2017 03:36PM
Michigan law has long recognized a wife’s dower right to one-third of all land owned by her husband during his lifetime. Dower laws were originally enacted to guarantee a man’s wife and children a means of financial support upon his passing, the concept of dower in Michigan can be traced as far back as a 1787 ordinance. Most states have long since eliminated their dower laws, citing them as outdated or discriminatory. Michigan is the only state that has maintained a gender-specific version of dower, granting dower rights only to married women without providing a reciprocal right to married men. On January 6, 2017, Governor Snyder signed Senate Bills 558 and 560 into law, abolishing dower rights in the State of Michigan. These bills will take effect April 6, 2017.
Dower is a contingent estate which only vests in the wife upon the death of her husband. In order to protect this right, a husband is prohibited from transferring (or even mortgaging) any real property he owns without his wife’s signature. For this reason, if a husband chooses to sell property that he owns as an individual, his wife must also sign the deed to release her dower interest in the property. This creates issues for husbands who may be estranged from their wives, or who have differing views as to how their real property should be transferred. If a husband conveys property that he owns during marriage without his wife signing off as to her dower interest, it creates a cloud on title and that will likely cause problems down the road. These mistakes require remedial deed work to fix, which leads to additional time and expense that could have been avoided with a properly drafted deed.
As a practical matter, dower rights are rarely exercised, as Michigan widows have other alternatives under the law. Upon her husband’s death, a widow may choose to follow the terms of her husband’s will, if he had one. If her husband died without a will, a widow may take the inheritance that passes to her through Michigan’s intestacy laws. This so-called intestate share, at a minimum, provides a widow with the first $100,000 from her late husband’s estate as well as half of the remainder. A widow may also take her elective share of her husband’s estate, which is one-half the value of what she would have received if her husband died intestate, less one-half the value of any property her husband transferred to her outside of his will. Dower’s one-third interest in real property is comparatively much smaller than an intestate or elective share, and therefore less attractive to many widows faced with this decision.
Following the United States Supreme Court decisions in DeBoer v. Snyder and Obergefell v. Hodges requiring all states to recognize same-sex marriages, the constitutionality of Michigan’s gender-based dower law has come into question. Faced with the possibility of having to defend the questionable constitutionality of this law in court, Michigan has opted to repeal it entirely. By abolishing dower, Michigan has not only eliminated an outdated legal concept, but also saved many property owners a substantial amount of time and money.