The provision that the law makes for a widow out of the lands or tenements of her husband, for her support and the nurture of her children. A species of life estate that a woman is, by law, entitled to
claim on the death of her husband, in the lands and tenements of which he was seised in fee during the marriage, and which her issue, if any, might by possibility have inherited. The life estate to which every married woman is entitled on the death of her husband, intestate, or, in case she dissents from his will, one-third in value of all lands of which her husband was beneficially seized in law or in fact, at any time during coverture.
The real property must be inheritable by the wife's offspring in order for her to claim dower. Even if, however, their marriage produces no offspring, the wife is entitled to dower as long as any such progeny of her husband would qualify as his heirs at the time of his death.
Prior to the death of the husband, the interest of the wife is called an inchoate right of dower, in the sense that it is a claim that is not a present interest but one that might ripen into a legally enforceable right if not prohibited or divested. It is frequently stated that an inchoate right of dower is a mere expectancy and not an estate. The law governing dower rights is the law in existence at the time of the husband's death and not the law existing at the time of the marriage.
The courts, however, protect the inchoate right of dower from a fraudulent conveyance—a transfer of property made to defraud, delay, or hinder a creditor, or in this case, the wife, or to place such property beyond the creditor's reach—by the husband in contemplation of, or subsequent to, the marriage. Protection is also available against the claims of creditors if the claims arose after the marriage. The posting of security can be required to protect the interest if oil, gas, or other substances are removed from the land, which thereby results in a depreciation—a reduction of worth—with respect to the value of the estate. Decisions supporting a contrary view take the position that a wife cannot interfere with her husband's complete enjoyment of the land during his lifetime.
A wife can relinquish her inchoate right of dower by an antenuptial agreement—which is a contract entered into by the prospective spouses prior to the marriage that resolves issues of support, division of property, and distribution of wealth in the event of death, separation, or divorce—or by a release, that is, the relinquishment of a right, claim, or privilege.
The claim of dower is based upon proof of a legally recognized marriage, as distinguished from a GOOD FAITH marriage or a de facto marriage—one in which the parties live together as HUSBAND AND WIFE but that is invalid for certain reasons, such as defects in form. A VOIDABLE marriage, one that is valid when entered into and which remains valid until either party obtains a lawful court order dissolving the marital relationship, suffices for this purpose if it is not rendered void—of no legal force or binding effect—before the right to the dower arises.
Most states have varied the dower provisions. The fraction of the estate has frequently been increased from one-third to one-half. The property affected has been expanded from realty only to both realty and personalty. The time of ownership has sometimes been changed from "owned during marriage" to "owned at death." The type of interest given to the surviving spouse has been expanded from a life estate to outright ownership of property.
In many states, a widow is entitled to a statutory share in her husband's estate. This is often called an elective share because the surviving spouse can choose to accept the provisions made for her in the decedent's will or accept the share of the property specified by law of DESCENT AND DISTRIBUTION or the particular law governing the elective share. In many jurisdictions, dower has been abolished and replaced by the elective share. In others, statutes expressly provide that a spouse choose among the elective share, the dower, or the provisions of the will.
COMMON LAW prescribes that an absolute DIVORCE will bar a claim of dower. A legal separation—sometimes labeled a divorce from bed and board, a mensa et thoro—does not end the marital relationship. Unless there is an express statute, such a divorce will not defeat a claim of dower. This is also true with respect to an INTER-LOCUTORY decree of divorce, an interim or temporary court order.
In some states, statutes provide that dower can be denied upon proof of particular types of misconduct, such as ADULTERY, which is voluntary sexual intercourse of a married person with a person other than his or her spouse. Statutes in several states preserve dower if a divorce or legal separation is obtained due to the fault of the other spouse.
In many states, statutes provide that a murderer is not entitled to property rights in the estate of the victim upon the principle that a person must not be allowed to profit from personal wrong. Following this theory, a CONSTRUCTIVE TRUST will be declared in favor of the heirs or devisees of the deceased spouse.
Brand, Paul. 2001. "'Deserving' and 'Undeserving' Wives: Earning and Forfeiting Dower in Medieval England." Journal of Legal History 22 (April): 1–20.