Some married people selling real estate become frustrated when they learn that their spouses must sign the deeds to sell property. The frustration is typically strongest when the owner’s spouse literally never had his or her name on the property.
This frustration comes from “dower” law. Dower is a collection of rights that a married person possesses (as an attribute of marriage) in property owned by the married person’s spouse.
Notably, dower is different from the traditional word “dowry,” which is something that a bride’s family traditionally gave to a man as a wedding gift upon the man’s marriage to that bride.
To explain dower’s contemporary application, presume that a small business owner purchases a building and titles ownership of that building in the owner’s personal name. The owner later sells that property. If the owner is married at the time of sale (regardless of marital status before or after that date), the spouse of the owner will be required to sign the deed conveying ownership of the building.
Dower’s purpose is sometimes explainable through two sexist, historical situations.
First, for a long time in America (and in Europe, from where much of our law comes), women could not own property. So, when a couple became legally married, all of the property belonged to the husband. Remarkably, some of that property might have even been inherited through the wife’s family! Nonetheless, if the husband tired of his wife (or came to otherwise lack affection for his wife), the husband might simply sell the property and move away. Obviously, such a situation could leave the wife homeless and penniless.
Second, in the past, some men did not want their wives to inherit from them. The reasons for that could have been because the husband had a mistress, could not justify divorce (before no-fault divorce was lawful) or for a variety of other reasons. Administering the husband’s estate exactly consistent with a will that disinherited the husband’s wife could also put the wife in an unfair and sometimes impossible situation.
Now, dower applies to protect all married people in Ohio. If both spouses are alive, each spouse has a dower interest that precludes the other spouse from unilaterally selling or mortgaging property.
Dower also protects some rights of surviving spouses after the first spouse dies. A surviving spouse who was married to the deceased spouse when that spouse died can demand (with certain, various limitations) the ability to possess (for the surviving spouse’s lifetime) approximately up to one-third of the property owned by the deceased spouse, regardless of the literal language in the deceased spouse’s will.
The law provides a mathematical formula to calculate the literal “dollar value” of any married person’s dower interest. However, the value is almost always very small. This is because dower is less about money and more about spousal respect and protection.
Married people often own property separate from each other (for liability protection or other reasons), but when the owner is married, the owner’s spouse has rights that dower law attempts to protect.
Lee R. Schroeder is an Ohio licensed attorney at Schroeder Law LLC in Putnam County. He limits his practice to business, real estate, estate planning and agriculture issues in northwest Ohio. He can be reached at Lee@LeeSchroeder.com or at 419-659-2058. This article is not intended to serve as legal advice, and specific advice should be sought from the licensed attorney of your choice based upon the specific facts and circumstances that you face.