On December 22, 2016, Governor Snyder signed legislation to abolish dower rights in the State of Michigan. The elimination of dower marks a significant change in Michigan law, even if it will not have a significant impact on day-to-day life.
Dower has been a part of Michigan law for well over 200 years. Dower was originally intended to protect women, and was enacted at a time when women could not own property in Michigan. Essentially, dower prevented a man from disinheriting his wife and leaving her destitute upon his death. Dower was not eliminated when women first became able to own property in Michigan in the mid-1800s, and remained in effect to ensure that a husband could not disinherit a wife by transferring away property without her consent. The dower rights entitled a widow to a 1/3 interest in all real estate owned by her deceased husband at any time during the marriage, unless the widow waived that dower right in writing.
In recent times, dower rights became little more than a nuisance. Dower rights are seldom exercised in the event of a death of a spouse because Michigan law has several options which are generally more favorable to a surviving spouse in the event of death. And, when married individuals attempted to transfer property, a wife often was required to sign a document indicating that she was waiving dower rights. In most divorce cases, the division of property is more favorable than what could be obtained by electing property under dower rights.
Effective March 22, 2017, a widow’s dower rights in all forms of Michigan law are repealed. Also effective March 22, 2017, a provision of Michigan law which requires judgments of divorce and separate maintenance to contain a provision in lieu of dower is repealed. As a result of these changes in the law, dower rights are only available to a surviving widow whose spouse died before March 22, 2017.