It’s been over a year since the Michigan Legislature abolished dower rights. In January 2017, Governor Rick Synder signed a bill into law that read in part, “[A] wife’s dower right is abolished and unenforceable either through statute or at common law.”1)MCL 558.30
Dower was the right of a widow to a one-third entitlement in real property which her deceased husband had an ownership interest in during his lifetime. In essence, dower rights protected widows whose husband transferred away all property as a way to disinherit his wife. What was once viewed as a significant legal protection for women has since disappeared on equal protection grounds.
Before the Michigan Legislature repealed dower rights, Michigan was one of the few states that still recognized common law dower rights. Yet, the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision in Obergefell v Hodges hastened dower’s end. The Court in Obergefell set aside state bans on same-sex marriages and ruled that states could not use gender or sex as a basis for marriage eligibility. Although Obergefell never specifically addressed dower rights, it implied the possibility that, in some marriages, both persons would have dower rights and in others neither. Sensing the questionable constitutionality of dower rights after Obergefell, Michigan’s repeal came in early 2017.
One practical effect the repeal of dower rights has had is that real estate transfers have become simpler. In the past, it may have been necessary to inquire about gender and marital status of the real estate seller and even have a spouse sign off on the sale. By removing this outdated legal concept, the legislature has saved many Michigan property owners both time and money.
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