There is a pending change to Ohio real estate law that would simplify real estate transactions and save regular Ohioans significant time and money. This change would significantly streamline many real estate transactions and save me from regularly explaining to my clients why Ohio still has a law that outlived its intended purposes.
The proposed law change was passed unanimously by the Ohio House of Representatives last week and could be passed by the Ohio Senate and signed by the governor very soon.
Ohio is poised to join 33 other states that have abolished the archaic doctrine of dower. Dower is a legal doctrine based upon centuries-old, sexist legal traditions initiated in Europe and the United Kingdom, from where our laws originated.
Traditionally, women who were married were not allowed to own property separately from their husbands. Instead, all real estate property owned by the “family” was controlled by and titled in the name of the husband.
However, a wife would automatically get at least some fraction of the “family real estate” if the husband died. That part of real estate to which the wife was entitled upon becoming a widow was called her “dower.” This practice of a widow automatically getting some of the family real estate was designed to decrease society’s responsibility to feed and clothe that widow and her kids at public expense.
Therefore, part of a family’s real estate (always only titled in the name of the husband) was technically protected for the wife in the event that the husband died. To protect the husband from depleting the family real estate that could be needed to care for his widow if he died, a married man was precluded from selling any real estate in his name unless his wife agreed. Essentially, every married man had to have his wife “release her dower” in order to sell real estate.
Later, to avoid the appearance of sexism, all married people, regardless of sex or gender, who owned real estate were required to have their spouses release dower in order to sell or otherwise transfer any real estate owned by either spouse.
Obviously, the need for dower in our contemporary society has long since passed.
Non-attorneys may think that it would be simple to abolish dower laws nationwide at a federal level. However, the federal government generally lacks Constitutional authority to deal with real estate. Real estate is not a part of interstate commerce. Real estate is not taxed federally. Real estate transfers do not require application of the Constitution’s “full faith and credit” duties imposed among states. Therefore, real estate law and, correspondingly, dower law are a state law issue.
Every deed, mortgage, lien and lease in Ohio identifies the property owner’s marital status and, if married, requires that the identity and signature of the spouse be included in that document. No longer needing spouses to sign real estate documents within which the spouse is not already named will save Ohioans time, money and confusion.
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.