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In Law, What Is Curtesy?

The origins of curtesy lie in England.
Few law books still contain the legal concept of curtesy.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 21 June 2014
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Curtesy is a legal concept which has largely been abolished today, although it still appears on some law books. Under the doctrine of curtesy, when a married woman dies, her husband is automatically entitled to what is known as a life interest in her property, as long as the couple had children. Under a life interest, the widower has the right to use the land for life, but cannot sell or transfer it, and cannot will it to anyone, with ownership of the property reverting to the children upon his death.

The origins of curtesy lie in England, and the laws pertaining to this subject are sometimes known as dower and curtesy laws. Dower is the equivalent of curtesy for wives; if a husband precedes his wife in death, she is entitled to a life interest in his property. However, historically dower rights were only to a third of the property, while curtesy entitled a widower to half or more, and because this is inequal, such laws were struck down in many nations because they violated equal rights laws by treating men and women differently.

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The specifics of dower and curtesy laws could get quite complex. For example, divorce automatically ended this right, making it impossible for ex-spouses to claim a life interest in the property of a divorced spouse after death. In addition, if the woman had children by a previous marriage, her new husband would not be entitled to curtesy upon her death, with some nations specifying that this would change in the event of the death of the child.

When dower and curtesy laws were carried over into more modern legal systems, many nations eliminated the distinction between dower and curtesy, and changed the wording slightly, dictating merely that a surviving spouse was entitled to a share of the property in the event that someone died intestate, or without a will. However, in some areas, even if someone died with a will, the surviving spouse could still claim property rights.

In regions where vestiges of this system still survive, some interesting legal challenges can come up. For example, if a spouse is automatically entitled to one third of the property in the event that the other spouse dies, selling or transferring away this part of the inheritance could not be done without permission. In a marriage in these regions, if someone owned a house independently, he or she would not be allowed to sell it without spousal permission.

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