English Common Law provided a widow a life interest in one-third of the freehold lands her husband owned at the time of their marriage. She could not be denied these rights unless she was found guilty of treason, felony, or adultery. The law of dower gave a wife one-third of any property a man held on his death. That excluded entailed property, for the most part. However, the husband could defeat dower by leaving his wife as little as £50. The Court of Chancery did rectify such lapses if the widow had the resources or the friends to help her bring suit and there was any property or money to be had. The court looked to the amount of the dowry and the position the widow had held as wife. Obviously, the court would see that a countess was provided for better than the widow of a vicar. Unfortunately in this cases, the countess had had a father or guardian who made sure iron-clad settlements were drawn up, whereas the vicar’s wife might not have been so lucky.
Even if the father did not bother to arrange the marriage settlements before the actual marriage (i.e., an elopement), and the husband did not leave his widow anything in his will, she was, as previously explained, supposedly entitled to one-third of his own estate. This is called her dower. She was to ask the sheriff to see that this was arranged properly. However, quite often the husband had no property he owned outright, as it was all entailed. Then, she would have to petition the Court of Chancery for a sum upon which to live.
It was difficult for a husband to set up a trust for his wife during his lifetime, other than in a will, if doing so was not accomplished before the marriage. Because a husband and wife, under law, were considered one, he could not legally give himself his own money. There were cases where a husband did give the wife money and wrote it out that this money was to be hers to do with as she would. However, in such one case where the woman took that money and purchased houses, she lost the property without recompense when her husband died, and the heir sued to have the houses declared part of the estate. Other situations that were deemed illegal included where the husband gave his wife money in a trust and then raided the trust, presented her property and then sold it for his profit, etc.
The Oxford Reference defines the Statue of Uses as, “The use was a legal device whereby property could be held by one person for the benefit of another, e.g. when a landowner was absent on crusade. But, by extension, it might be employed to evade or avoid obligations, defraud creditors, or escape legislation against mortmain. Henry VIII pressed strongly that uses should be restricted, arguing that his revenue was affected, but the Parliament of 1532 was unwilling to legislate and was told sharply ‘not to contend with me’. In 1535 Parliament accepted 27 Hen. VIII c. 10, which complained of ‘subtle inventions and practices’ and restored obligations to the beneficiary.” The “jointure” came into practice with the Statue of Uses. It was a settlement on a bride by her future husband of a freehold piece of property to be used to secure her widowhood. The bride was required to surrender her dower (not her “dowry,” although the terms can be confusing).
Later in the 19th Century, wives lost their right to inherit, meaning in the 1830s, if the woman had no jointure rights recorded in her husband’s will, the widow could be left without anything upon which to survive. She could also lose the right to the property if she remarried. It would automatically revert back to his heir.
Jointures were usually payable be the heir of the estate as an annual payment, which was equal to one-tenth of the dowry she brought to the marriage. This number was established because it was assumed that the wife would outlive her husband by ten years, for that was often the difference in their ages when they married. She would receive this payment for the remaining days of her lifetime. Thereafter, the principle would be allotted to her children. Providing the widow one-tenth of what she brought into the marriage meant she received back her dowry. The percentages were per year. The amounts were generally paid quarterly. The formula generally followed this plan: pin money was 2% of the dowry, while jointure was 10%.
As stated above, the jointure is usually set forth in the marriage settlements, which is a prenuptial or ante nuptial agreement. These funds are supposed to come to the widow without let or hindrance. However, it is often set up to be the income from some piece of land. If there is no income from said land, she is out of luck.
Yet, if the husband had not set up a jointure (her annual annuity), but, rather, left her a small sum in his will, that was all she would receive. Or if the heir was not her son, and the estate was encumbered by a mortgage, she might have a problem receiving either the jointure or the dower.
She was supposed to receive a sum large enough to allow her to live decently according to her rank, but not all knew equality under the law. There were even cases where the man left most of his cash to a grandson of a child by his first wife. In a few such cases, the courts felt the widow should have the return of most of her dowry, if nothing else.
A dowry was provided as compensation to the husband for taking on the care of the woman for the remainder of his and her days. Interest from the dowries equalled what the woman would have a spending money or pin money. It played a part in how much income she had readily available once she became a widow (See the formula mentioned above.), and determined the distributions made to the children of the marriage once she, too, died. The problem was that often a dowry could only be used as a “dowry,” and the widow would only have the interest upon which to live.
Exceptions were often made if the marriage lasted less than a year and the woman was not pregnant nor had she borne a child in that time. The law of Scotland, for example, set it out as a definite thing that in such cases the dowry was returned. One of the reasons elopements were frowned upon was that the wife usually had no protection except the goodwill of the husband and his heir upon which to make a claim, if she did not bear a son.
To determine the settlement agreed upon before the exchange of marriage vows, one took the total amount of funds set aside for the dowries of the daughters and divide by the number of daughter in the family. To guarantee fairness, one would think the amount would be divided equally, but there was no written guidelines or laws that made this method official. The father could add to the sum during his lifetime, but, again, he was not compelled to do so by law.
Other issues that complicated the situation were numerous. For example, if she was under 21, she would still require a guardian, though she could remarry without permission. The guardianship often reverted back to the widow’s father or brother .
Widows of aristocrats and the upper gentry were seldom left destitute, but they could be left with very little income. Usually the widow was also given the use of the Dower House or another house owned by the husband.
If the marriage settlements or the will left her money, the executor of the will was supposed to see that she received it. Unless she was still a minor, no one was supposed to keep it from her.
If her father was a peer, it was unlikely that the heir’s family would attempt to keep her money from her. However, if he were a clergyman, or, if her father was dead, they might try to withhold the money.The solicitor and executor would have to be complicit in such behaviour.
If she is young, but without children, though she is of age, it is likely that her father or brother, if father is dead, would attempt to take over her finances.
If the woman had no money set aside for her widowhood in a settlement or a will, the courts gave her her dower of one third of the man’s property– but it is possible for her not to know this, or if she knows it, she doesn’t know how to approach the court, and she needs a place to live so, youngish, childless widows were expected to go back home. What the law says and what people do are often at odds.
Jane Austen often speaks of dowries, dower, jointures, and settlements in her tales. For example, in Sense and Sensibility, Mrs. Dashwood is not the mother of the heir, for Mr. John Dashwood is the only son of Mr. Henry Dashwood and his first wife. The estate has passed to John Dashwood’s hands, and he holds no obligation to provide for his step-mother or his half sisters. They are made to live, instead, on the income supplied by the jointure. The amount is £500, which means Mrs. Dashwood likely brought £5000 to the marriage in the form of her dowry. The Dashwood ladies’ lifestyle is greatly reduced. The £500 will allow for a servant or two, but no carriage and, likely, a tougher cut of meat.
Mrs. Bennet’s dowry of £5000 in Pride and Prejudice would provide each of her five daughters only £1000, if it is divided equally. Mr. Darcy is taking a large loss of funds when he chooses to marry Elizabeth Bennet because Elizabeth’s dowry certainly does not offset the £30,000 dowry that will be an outlay when Georgiana Darcy marries.
Amazing summary of the widow’s possibilities with inheritance. Thanks for all of your research and compiling the info.
It sometimes confuses me, also, Jen. Putting it all together for this post allows me to look back to it when I am writing.
Excellent post! You explained these complicated issues well.
Thank you, Lauren. I thought the post would be easy to write, but it took over 2 hours to gather everything in one place. LOL!
Some states use some of these principles, particularly how they relate to dower (not to be confused with dowery) which means the wife is entitled to a certain amount of the estate even if the husband tries to cut her out and leave her penniless. This does not work, however, if the wife is already wealthy. It is meant to protect poor wives, not ones with means. There is also a term for what a man may claim, “cutesy”. I believe these old principles are mostly upheld in the South, but I could be wrong. I find it interesting that concepts from so long ago are still used today.
“Cutesy” is not a word I have come across previously. I must check it out. Thanks for your insights.