Putnam's Handy Law Book for the Layman
Dower. - Dower is the interest that a wife has in her husband's land after his death, and consists, unless modified by statute, of the use of one third during her life. While both live her interest is so secured to her by law that he cannot sell and convey any of his land unless she unites with him in signing a proper deed of conveyance. In most states this interest or dower is paramount to the claims of her husband's creditors. But if there is any lien on the land at the time of his death, like a mortgage, she cannot claim a preference or priority over the mortgagee.
She can claim her dower in any land belonging to her husband which her children, if she had any, could have inherited as the heirs of their father. When her dower is in mortgaged land, she cannot get possession until the mortgage has been paid. Again, where land, wherein she has a dower interest, must be sold, her right to the proceeds follows the sale. If her husband was not in possession of the land claimed by him before and after marriage, her dower will not become effective until gaining possession. If he were only the nominal and not the real possessor, her dower will not attach to the land, nor if he were in possession as trustee, the real ownership belonging to another.
A legal marriage is necessary to sustain a dower estate. Whenever a marriage can be set aside for some illegality, and is not, it will sustain her dower on his death. So, too, her dower may be lost or barred by a legal separation; if she should re-marry, or the divorce is set aside, her dower would revive. Her dower may also be lost should her husband legally part with his estate, or by any legal proceeding it should be taken away from him; thus, should another claim it and prove that he had the better title. In other words she loses her dower whenever her husband has no estate from which her dower can be carved out. It is true that an adverse claimant cannot give any title to her husband's land that would bar her right thereto. The reason for this rule is that, like a minor, her rights cannot be acquired against one who is unable by reason of age or other infirmity to protect himself.
The wife is entitled to have dower assigned to her immediately after her husband's death. Until this is done, she has the right of common law for the period of forty days, called quarantine, to reside in her husband's house, provided she does not marry during that time.
Dower may be assigned to her in two ways. One way is by direction of the court, which ascertains by proper evidence the extent, location and value of the husband's lands, and then directs the sheriff to carry out its order in assigning to her a specific portion for her use during life. The other way is by agreement. In some states money is assigned to her instead of land as dower.
Dower may be barred by agreement made before marriage. These arrangements, marriage settlements, are becoming more frequent with the increase of wealth and complexities respecting the holding of property. Sometimes a testator provides for his widow in lieu of dower. In such a case she may accept the gift, or reject it and claim her dower rights. Suppose a testator should own a large amount of land, and in his will should give her only a small amount of money in lieu of dower. If eager to get the most possible, she would reject the gift of money and claim her dower rights. On the other hand, suppose he had but very little or no real estate, then she doubtless would accept the money gift, unless she could claim a still larger sum by virtue of some statute made to fit such cases.
Dower does not exist in crops or trees severed from the land, but does exist in mines and quarries belonging to the husband which were opened and worked during his life. If lands have been exchanged by the husband, she can elect in which she shall take her dower, but not in both. There can be no dower in a mere personal privilege, or in a revocable license pertaining to land. The widow of a partner is ordinarily entitled to dower in so much of the partnership land as is left after the payment of the firm's debts and the adjustment of matters between the partners. But if an agreement among them that the land shall be considered as personal property for all purposes, then no dower therein can be claimed by the widow of any partner.
A wife can release her inchoate dower or future expectation of receiving it by joining in a conveyance with her husband for that purpose. In order to make the election binding, it must be made with full knowledge on the widow's part of her husband's estate, and the relative value of her dower interest. The election is personal, and cannot be exercised by her representatives after her death, nor by creditors; and if insane, this cannot be done by any committee or guardian acting under the authority of a court.
An absolute divorce, even though for the husband's fault, divests the wife of dower, unless her right is saved by statute. Quite frequently, the statute provides that there shall be no dower in case of divorce for the wife's fault. Occasionally it is provided by statute that divorce for the husband's fault shall not bar dower; and sometimes a statute requires dower to be assigned immediately upon divorce without awaiting the husband's death. It may be added that the principles of the common law relating to dower have been largely modified by statute in all the states.
Do It Yourself Legal Forms
Law for the Laymen - Dower
Page Updated 6:30 PM Thursday 6/13/2013