Dower rights have been a fixture of Michigan law since 1787. Dower provided widows an entitlement to one-third interest in the real property that their husbands owned at any time during the marriage, allowing the deceased husband to provide economic support for his surviving wife. MCL 558.1. Earlier forms of dower were intended to assist wives, who were not permitted to own property and were left dependent on their husbands. Even after women were allowed to own property in Michigan in the mid-1800s, the state legislature felt that the women were still not on equal “economic footing” with men. Dower therefore remained. Although there was some debate during the 1961 Michigan constitutional convention about dower and whether it was still necessary, dower remained to ensure a husband could not disinherit his wife by transferring away property without her consent. MCL 558.13.
Notably, Michigan crafted its dower law specifically to protect only wives, not “spouses.” But with the significant shift in the definition of marriage brought about by the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell, holding that states must recognize and license same-sex marriages, the continued viability of dower was called into question. Effective April 6, 2017, the Michigan Legislature eliminated dower rights altogether. See 2016 PA 378, 2016 PA 489, and 2016 PA 490. Now, only six states in the country retain some form of dower rights.
Practically speaking, this elimination may not have an enormous impact, as dower rights are rarely exercised. Wives may seek other remedies under Michigan laws that tend to be more generous. Under Michigan intestacy law, in specific scenarios, the surviving spouse could be entitled to the first $150,000, plus one-half of the balance of any intestate estate. (See chapter 2, "Intestacy and Determination of Heirs," in Michigan Probate Litigation.) Under Michigan family law, depending on the circumstances, a divorced wife would typically be entitled to a more equitable division of property than a one-third life estate of her husband's property. (See chapter 15, "Property Division," in Michigan Family Law.)
Though this may not be a game changer in the legal community, it is a symbolic move: Michigan is moving past an outdated statute that is rarely used.