Here’s What To Know About the Antiquated Real Estate Term “Dower Rights”

published May 14, 2022
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.
Post Image
Credit: IgorGolovniov/

Throughout U.S. history, laws have not always served its citizens equally, often putting women and people of color at a disadvantage. While this country has come far from where it started, every once in a while, an outdated law or phrase will pop up in the lexicon and remind us of the way things used to be. Enter: dower rights

This term was used to ensure that women — primarily white women who were unable to own property themselves until around mid-1800s (in most cases) — would have some claim to their late husband’s possessions after his death. While the phrase has changed over the years as women slowly gained more rights, you may still see it pop up from time to time. 

What are dower rights?

Dower rights were established to help widows establish entitlement to their husband’s “real” property in the event that their names weren’t listed on the title and no will had been created. “These laws date back to the 1800s and apply only to marriage between a man and a woman,” explains Robert Heck, vice president of Mortgage at Morty, an online mortgage marketplace. “Their purpose was to grant financial security to a widow and her family after her husband’s passing, at a time when a woman’s ability to find employment was highly restricted.” 

How do dower rights affect you?

Dower rights can introduce an added layer of complexity for homebuyers and homeowners alike, according to Heck. This is especially true when it comes time to get a mortgage, or transfer title ownership by buying or selling a property. “When you are looking to buy, Realtors in those states are required to ask about your marital status as these rights may come into play down the line,” he says. 

“For example, even if you are the only person listed on a deed, Realtors will typically need your spouse’s signature on relevant paperwork to comply with the laws.” If you happen to purchase a property as a single man, and then sell the property when you’re married, your wife will also need to sign the deed at closing. “It’s typically nothing to be concerned about, but it’s another step in the process and you want to make sure you’re working with an experienced Realtor who can make sure you’re checking this box.”

Are dower rights still in effect?

According to Heck, there are still a handful of places that rely on dower rights to establish ownership for women who, for whatever reason, weren’t added to the legal documents pertaining to the property they shared with their husbands. “While dower rights have been abolished in most states and are largely seen as outdated, they have survived to some capacity in a few states,” Heck says, noting that Arkansas, Kentucky, and Ohio all still have dower rights laws on the books. “Each state approaches them in a different way, so it’s best to check with your Realtor about the specific rules pertaining to the state you live in.”