Effective April 7, 2017, Governor Snyder approved legislation that eliminates statutory and common law dower rights in Michigan. Dower is a legal protection for women that dates back to a period when women were not able to own real estate. Dower helped to prevent a husband from conveying a marketable real estate title without his wife’s signature – even though the wife was not a title holder of the property. Dower also provided a widow with the right to use her deceased husband’s real property during her lifetime. Under Michigan’s version of dower, dower rights could be claimed only by the wife, and not by the husband, and those rights remained “inchoate” while her husband is alive. In other words, dower rights were not effective until after the husband’s death, but they nevertheless could not be impaired (by sale or mortgage) during the husband’s lifetime without the wife’s consent – even if the husband is the sole owner on the deed. Consequently, all deeds have been required to identify the marital status of a man transferring property (e.g., “John Smith, a married man”), and the deed had to have been also signed by his wife to prevent her inchoate dower interest from clouding title. Although there has been an exception to dower where the wife resides outside of Michigan, the requirement that a married man’s wife approve all real estate transactions has complicated real estate transactions for many generations.
Although there have been failed efforts to abolish dower in recent years, the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges (which in effect approved same sex marriage) and the uncertainty involved with applying the doctrine of dower in the context of same-sex marriage appears to have tipped the scales in favor of abolition. The new Michigan legislation eliminates dower in Michigan and thus removes the requirement that a wife must sign off on real estate transactions involving her husband’s solely-owned property. A key exception involves property that a married couple occupies as their “homestead,” which is not subject to sale, lien or mortgage without approval by both spouses. Additional consequences of the elimination of dower include deleting the requirement that Michigan divorce judgments include a provision terminating dower rights. Although the new Michigan legislation does not specifically remove the requirement that a man’s marital status be identified on Michigan real estate deeds, it is likely that this requirement will also be eliminated.
This new legislation becomes effective on April 7, 2017. However, the changes will not apply to dower rights elected by a wife whose husband died before April 7, 2017.
If you have any questions about dower rights and the impact of the new legislation, please contact your Berry Moorman estate planning or real estate attorney by calling (313) 496-1200.