04 April 2017

Michigan’s Dower Rights To Be Abolished April 6

What are dower rights?  We all know they exist and we see the term on deeds periodically, but what are they really?  And does this apply to me?

In Michigan, dower rights apply only to a surviving spouse who is a woman. A man cannot elect dower rights.  This law has been in place for centuries because, historically, husbands were typically the primary or sole breadwinners of the family. The purpose of this law was to provide an additional support option for a widow in the event her husband attempted to completely disinherit her.  These rights include a one-third interest in any real estate owned by the husband during the time of the marriage for the duration of her lifetime.  So essentially, she can elect a life estate in one-third of the real estate he owned while they were married, even if he has since transferred or sold the property prior to his death.  This is why wives have been required to sign Deeds to real estate titled only in their husband’s name.  At the sale or transfer, the wife is waiving her dower rights to that property.  These rights were rarely used and are rife with constitutional equal protection challenges, not just because they apply only to women, but there is some ambiguity whether they apply to female spouses in a same-sex marriage.  These rights were one of three options a widow could choose relating to her husband’s estate.  The other two options, not a subject of this update, are equally available to both men and women.

Michigan has updated it law to abolish dower rights effective April 6, 2017.  There is one exception. After April 6, dower rights may be elected by wives whose husbands died prior to April 6 and (1) she already elected dower or (2) the deadline to make the election has not yet expired.