Dower Rights in Michigan after 2017
Dating back centuries, dower rights existed to give women (who couldn’t own property when the rights were first employed) the right to one-third of their deceased husband’s real estate. The original intent behind dower rights was to ensure married women had the means to support themselves and any children after the passing of a husband.
Dower rights are traditionally attached to all real property owned by the husband, with a few exceptions: the property must have been acquired during the marriage and the property had to be solely titled to the deceased husband. Dower rights technically took effect while the husband was alive but could only be acted upon once the husband passed away.
The legal term for rights such as this is inchoate, which means not fully developed. This is because dower rights are established at marriage, but those rights are not considered vested until after the husband has passed.
Former governor Rick Snyder signed bills SB 558 and SB 560, which abolished dower rights in Michigan, with an exception for widows whose husbands passed away before the April 7, 2017 effective date. This means that all real estate transactions after April 7, 2017 are no longer subject to potential dower claims by widows of the deceased.
After having been in cultural norms and a staple of the law for centuries, it might seem odd to suddenly have the law repealed. The reasons why are discussed below.
The primary reason behind the abolishment of dower rights in Michigan is related to multiple developments and changes within our society, such as same-sex marriage. Michigan’s previous dower rights only applied to married women, meaning that men within same-sex marriages wouldn’t be able to apply for these rights. Other states already allowed dower rights for men but, because Michigan didn’t, abolition was necessary to make the system equal.
However, same-sex marriage was not the only cultural change that spurred a change in the law. Dower rights were originally put in place to combat the fact that women couldn’t own property or be listed on titles. Since this is no longer the case, the need for a law establishing dower rights has diminished over time.
The new law abolishes the right to elect dower rights but does not take away the other elections a widow or widower can choose from. If a spouse has removed their spouse from their Will, called disinheriting, the surviving spouse (either a man or a woman) has the right to elect against the Will. If a spouse makes that election, the spouse is entitled to up to one-half of the possessions that would have been considered theirs if the deceased spouse had not made a Will. Specifically, the statute allows surviving spouses to elect to “take 1/2 of the sum or share that would have passed to the spouse had the testator died intestate, reduced by 1/2 of the value of all property derived by the spouse from the decedent by any means other than testate or intestate succession upon the decedent’s death.”
In summary, the surviving spouse of the testator (the person who made the Will) can legally claim up to half of what they would have inherited without a Will (intestate). This half can sometimes be greater than the one-third of all real estate under the previous dower rights law. In many ways, the remaining right to elect 1/2 of the intestate estate is more generous for surviving spouses than the previous dower right option.
To avoid any complications that might arise from property distribution concerns, you and your spouse should consider estate planning. With a proper plan in place, your property will be protected no matter what happens.
Dingeman & Dancer, PLC has experienced estate planning attorneys who will be able to help you provide for your loved ones after you’re gone. To inquire about how we can help, contact us online, send an email, or call us at 800-626-0050. When you call us, you get us.