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Saturday, September 30, 2017

Women, Property, Inheritance and Genealogy-- Part Three: Dower

James Tissot - Without a Dowry aka Sunday in the Luxembourg Gardens
Dower is the wife's interest in her husband's real property upon his death. This is legal concept that dates back into antiquity. Commonly, the widow was legally entitled to use one third of the real property to support herself and her children during her lifetime. Vestiges of this dower interest are still common in many states of the United States and variations on the concept of dower are common around the world. The basis for this interest is the now less commonly accepted concept of coverture holding that a married woman did not have a separate legal existence from her husband. Dower was one of the very few exceptions to this harsh legal concept.

For genealogists, dower rights provide a narrow window of opportunity to identify the separate identity of married women. Quoting from Wikipedia: Dower:
The dower grew out of the Germanic practice of bride price (Old English weotuma), which was given over to a bride's family well in advance for arranging the marriage, but during the early Middle Ages, was given directly to the bride instead. However, in popular parlance, the term may be used for a life interest in property settled by a husband on his wife at any time, not just at the wedding. The verb to dower is sometimes used.
This concept of dower is sometimes reflected in the use of the term, "dowager," for a woman who was a widow and entitled to assert her dower interest. Dower rights were formally recognized by English courts as early as the 1300s.

One important fact for genealogists is that the widow's dower interest had to be waived or relinquished in conjunction with the sale of any real property. As a result, deeds commonly contain a consent by the wife to the transfer of real property by the husband. In some cases, these provisions are witnessed and the witnesses are members of the wife's family thus identifying the wife's maiden name. In other instances, failure to include a waiver of the wife's dower interest resulted in the widow being able to assert her dower interest in the real property either in a probate of the property or even long after the death of the husband. Because of these types of interest, research into land and property records can and should be rather extensive as to the time frame of transactions affecting a particular family's interest in real property.

There are a few states in the Unites States that still recognize a dower interest as such. But many states still base their division of property upon the death of the husband or a dissolution due to divorce on the concept that the wife and children share a percentage of the property interest. The exceptions in the United States are the nine community property states that hold both parties to the marital community to have an equal share in all the property acquired during coverture with some exceptions.

Issues such as dower can be very helpful to genealogists who take the time and make the effort to learn about both history and law.

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