Dower and Curtesy

How Are Dowry, Dower, and Curtesy Different?

Widow with lawyer
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Dowry is related to property or money given upon marriage, and dower and curtesy are concepts connected with property rights of a widowed spouse.


Dowry refers to a gift or payment by a bride's family to the groom or his family at the time of marriage. As an archaic usage, dowry can also refer to dower, the goods a woman brings to a marriage and retains some power over.

Less commonly, dowry refers to a gift or payment or property given by a man to or for his bride. This is more usually called a bride gift.

In South Asia today, dowry deaths are sometimes a problem: a dowry, paid on marriage, is returnable if the marriage ends. If the husband is unable to repay the dowry, the death of the bride is the only way to end the obligation.


Under English common law and in colonial America, dower was the share of a deceased husband's real estate to which his widow was entitled after his death. During his lifetime, she was, under the legal concept of coverture, not able to control any of the family property. After the widow's death, the real estate was then inherited as designated in her deceased husband's will; she had no rights to sell or bequeath the property independently. She did have rights to income from the dower during her lifetime, including rents and including income from crops grown on the land.

One-third was the share of her late husband's real property to which dower rights entitled her; the husband could increase the share beyond one-third in his will.

Where a mortgage or other debts offset the value of real estate and other property at the husband's death, dower rights meant that the estate could not be settled and the property could not be sold until the widow's death. In the 18th and 19th centuries, increasingly dower rights were ignored in order to settle estates more quickly, especially when mortgages or debts were involved.

In 1945 in the United States, a federal law abolished dower, though in most states, one-third of a husband's estate is awarded to a widow automatically if he dies without a will (intestate). Some laws limit the rights of a husband to bequeath less than one-third share to his widow except in prescribed circumstances.

A husband's right of inheritance is called curtesy.


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.

Today in the United States, instead of using common law curtesy rights, most states explicitly require that one-third to one-half of a wife's property be given outright to her husband at her death, if she dies without a will (intestate).

Curtesy is occasionally used to refer to a widower's interest as surviving spouse in the property left by the deceased wife, but many states have officially abolished curtesy and dower.