Dower Power

Dower is something most people have never heard of, but if you're a married person in Michigan and you own real estate, you or your spouse have dower. What is dower? It is historically related to a dowry. Dowry was property given to a bride by her parents on her marriage, while traditionally dower was property given to the bride by her husband or his family. Michigan is one of the few states left that still has legal dower.

Today, dower in Michigan is a widow's right to a life estate in one-third of all the real estate that her husband had owned at any time during the marriage. This is why when a married man deeds property, his wife usually has to sign the deed also, even if it was property he purchased before the marriage. If she doesn't sign the deed, then the wife still has her dower rights in that property, even if it was sold to someone else years ago. Upon marriage, the wife automatically acquires dower. The wife's name doesn't have to be on the deed.

Where dower matters is on the death of the husband. A widow can choose to take her dower rather than what she would get from a will. This matters when a husband and wife separate, but never divorce. The husband may give the wife nothing in a will, and she may get nothing else from his estate without dower.

Most title companies will make sure that a wife also signs the deed when a married man sells property. But there are actually many situations where a wife doesn't have to sign the deed (although there is usually no harm in the wife signing as well).

The reason that dower is still constitutional in Michigan, even though it only applies to women, is because "there are still circumstances in which the surviving wife may be significantly disadvantaged, in a way that surviving husbands generally are not", according to the Michigan Court of Appeals in a 2007 decision.

When a wife has no dower.

Below are some of the situations when a wife has no dower.

The husband only has a life estate or lease.

A wife only has dower in real estate that can be passed by inheritance. Since a life estate or a lease end on death, the wife would have no interest in that. You may have seen something like this become an issue in Downton Abbey, where the apparent owner of the estate, Robert, didn't own the estate outright but had something equivalent to a life estate. On his death, his wife would have no legal interest in the property, since it would automatically become the property of the next Earl. (Actually, the whole situation is even more complicated, and one reason why many places have eliminated things like dower.)

The land was always under a land contract.

If the husband was a buyer or seller of land under a land contract since before the marriage, then the wife has no dower in the land. Basically, a land contract is treated more like personal property until the contract is complete and the property is deeded.

The husband owned the property as a joint tenant.

If the husband owns the property together with one or more people, in any kind of partnership, then the wife does not have dower in that land. But, if all the other joint tenants die, or sell their interest to the husband, and the husband becomes the sole owner, the wife instantly has dower in the land, even if that happens for a short time. An example would be two married male hunting buddies, Bob and Joe, who own some land up north together, with the survivor of the two of them getting all the land. Bob decides to go on a cruise around the world. A week later, Joe decides to sell his share of the land to a stranger, Alice. What Joe doesn't know is that Bob died a week earlier from bad shellfish, and Joe's wife now has dower rights to the land he just sold to Alice.

This is a good reason why a title company would want a wife to sign, even though technically it should not be needed. 

Mortgage Foreclosure.

If the husband signed a mortgage that was used to purchase the property, a wife's dower would end if the mortgage is foreclosed.

Residency of the Wife.

If the wife voluntarily lives outside the state of Michigan, her dower automatically disappears. The husband is free to deed away the property without her signature (assuming she isn't also a co-owner of the property). But, if the wife is involuntarily residing in another state, like in a mental institution, she keeps her dower right.

Written Agreement.

The wife can sign almost any kind of written agreement giving up her dower right to property.

25 Year Rule.

If the husband sold land during the marriage more than 25 years ago, the wife forever loses her right to dower unless she records a claim of dower in the county register of deeds. The wife can wait until the 24th year to file the claim, but if she waits one day past 25 years, she forever loses the right to dower for that property.

Why does this matter?

Title companies handle most real estate transactions these days. But, title companies make mistakes. Also, people write their own deeds. It is still very common to see property that has been in the same family for generations, with mistakes and potential pitfalls that keep piling up through the years. Sorting out a situation like that is not simple, and requires a skilled attorney who understands the laws of real estate in Michigan.