Do Dowry Rights Still Exist?

If you are considering buying a home with a partner, or if your ownership or marital status may change in the future, it is important to understand who legally owns what.

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In some states, the obsolete English common law, known as dowry rights , still dictates the specifics of property ownership and inheritance. Initially, this practice applied to spouses who were not listed on property title deeds and in the absence of a will. Dowry rights were traditionally applied to wives, while curtsey rights were the counterpart for husbands.

The remaining dowry rights laws—still in force in Arkansas, Kentucky, and Ohio—have largely been adapted to apply to all spouses.

There are only a few scenarios in which dowry rights can be terminated: death, dissolution of marriage, liberation (one of the spouses signs his claim), and sometimes adultery. Ohio law also voids dowry rights if one spouse commits adultery, unless the other spouse condones it.

Even if you live outside of a state that has dowry rights laws, you still want to know what will happen to your home and other property if you get married, divorced, or die.

What do dowry rights mean in practice?

Again, since dowry rights are still registered in only three states, only residents of Arkansas, Kentucky, and Ohio will be affected by this concept. If you are getting a mortgage or buying and selling real estate in these states and are married (or your marital status has changed at any point), you should talk to both your real estate agent and a lawyer to make sure you understand and follow all the rules.

For example, a dowry right may prevent you from selling your property unless your spouse also signs the deed, effectively waiving said rights. If they fail to do so, or otherwise waive their dowry rights, the title becomes untradeable and the buyer may opt out .

Similarly, if you own a house and then get married, or if only one spouse’s name is listed on the loan, your spouse may automatically receive a dowry on that property.

Dowry rights replace wills , meaning that a spouse cannot be disinherited even if the property is bequeathed to another person. The surviving spouse is still entitled to a third of the property.

Inheritance laws in other states

If you live in any of the other 47 states, you still need to know how marriage affects property ownership and inheritance. Elective shares laws , for example, transfer set amounts of property ownership upon the death of one spouse to the surviving spouse (unless the surviving spouse receives what is specified in the will). Some states allow between a third and a half of the property, while others depend on the length of the marriage.

Nine states have joint property laws , which require property to be divided equally on divorce, while common law states (the rest, mostly) divide property based on who owns or earns it.

Keep in mind that each state handles this a little differently, so consulting with a professional, such as an estate planning attorney, is well worth it.


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