- Consumer Info
By Phillip J. Neuman, Esq.
Dower (the right of a woman to elect upon her husband’s death to take a life estate in 1/3 of any real property he owned in fee title during the marriage) has been around in Michigan in some form since at least 1846. The issue of dower has generated countless title claims over the course of time because wives failed to sign deeds and mortgages for properties owned solely by their husbands. As recently as a year ago, the Michigan Court of Appeals was asked to review a trial court decision involving a mortgage given by a married man without the signature of his wife and her subsequent efforts to claim a dower right. JPMorgan Chase Bank, N.A. v Lucaj, unpublished per curiam decision of the Michigan Court of Appeals (Dkt No. 323490, November 17, 2015). More importantly, dower became a huge headache when the United States Supreme Court affirmed the rights of gays and lesbians to marry each other (Obergefell v Hodges, 576 US (2015)), thereby creating a hornet’s nest of issues surrounding whether or not dower applied in those situations.
Thanks to the lobbying efforts of the Michigan Land Title Association, the Senate and House recently passed Senate Bills 558 and 560, which effectively eliminated dower in Michigan except for women whose husbands have died before the effective date of the legislation. The bills were signed into law by Governor Snyder on January 5, 2017, and have an effective date of April 6, 2017. The bills had originally been introduced in October, 2015, by Senator Rick Jones, the chairperson of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Senator Jones arranged for a quick hearing in his committee, and the bills ultimately passed the Senate on November 5, 2015 by a 34 to 4 vote. They languished in the House of Representatives until the lame duck session after the 2016 general election. The bills picked up steam in the House and passed there by a 66 to 42 vote on December 13, 2016. The Senate concurred in some minor changes that same day, and the bills were then sent to the Governor for signature. Additionally, a companion bill, House Bill 5520, also passed both chambers of the Legislature and was signed into law by Governor Snyder on December 21, 2016. HB 5520 eliminated the obligation of a judgment of divorce to include a provision in lieu of the dower of the wife in the property of the husband.
In addition to eliminating dower, the legislation also repealed two arcane sections of the Revised Judicature Act that dealt with the process of establishing a woman’s right to dower. The net effect of this legislation is that deeds and mortgages that had been missing the wife’s signature are no longer subject to challenge in any respect so long as the husband is alive as of April 6, 2017. And going forward, after April 6th, a non-titled spouse will no longer be required to sign a deed to bar her dower.