Curtesy, Dower, and a Few Related Terms

Coverture (Feme Covert):
       (Law) The condition of a woman during marriage, because she is considered under the cover, influence, power, and protection of her husband, and therefore called a {feme covert}, or {femme couverte}.
       Webster’s 1913 Dictionary

       Curtesy is a principle in common law in England and early America by which a widower could use his deceased wife’s property (that is, property which she acquired and held in her own name) until his own death, but could not sell or transfer it to anyone but children of his wife.
       Encyclopedia of Women’s History

Curtesy (Modern)
       The estate to which by common law a man is entitled, on the death of his wife, in lands or tenements of which she was seised in possession in fee-simple or in tail during her coverture, provided they have had lawful issue born alive which might have been capable of inherting the estate. It is a freehold estate for the term of his natural life. In some jurisdictions, there is no requirement that issue be born of the union. This estate has gradually lost much of its former value and now in some jurisdictions it attaches only to the real estate which the wife owns at death, rather than to the real estate owned by the wife during marriage, which in most states it has been abolished or otherwise materially altered.
       Black’s Law Dictionary, 6th Edition, 1991

       The English common law system of “dower rights” for widows was brought to America by our early colonists. These dower rights entitled a widow to a lifetime one-third interest of her husband’s estate upon his death. The husband could die intestate yet the widow’s one-third share would still be recognized. Because of the dower rights of a married woman and her legal interest in any land being sold or purchased, most early deeds will include the wife.
       In 1945, a U.S. federal law abolished dower.

Dower and Dowry:
       There are two legal definitions of the noun dower: an archaic sense, “the part of a dead man’s real estate left to his widow through agreement made when he was alive,” and the current sense, which is also the main meaning of dowry, “the money or property a bride brings to her husband at their marriage ”: Her family’s farm was part of her dower [dowry] when she married. The verb dower means “to provide with a dower (or dowry) ”: Their father dowered both daughters generously. Dowry also has two other meanings of note: a specialized sense is “the name of the payment made by her family at the time a woman enters some orders of nuns;” a more general figurative sense is “a talent or natural gift,” as in One valuable part of her dowry was her good common sense. In this last sense it is occasionally also used of a man.
       The Columbia Guide to Standard American English. Copyright © 1993 Columbia University Press.

Feme Sole:
       (Law), a single or unmarried woman; a woman who has never been married, or who has been divorced, or whose husband is dead.
       Webster’s 1913 Dictionary

       A person who dies without a legal will - having made no legally valid will before death or not disposed of by legal will; “he died intestate”; “intestate property.”
       Webster’s 1913 Dictionary

       A woman whose husband is dead; a widow.
       Webster’s 1913 Dictionary

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This page was first posted on:
03 September 2003