Kentucky is somewhat unique in that it maintains a version of dower in its legislation; most states have abolished such laws. Dower is a system of inheritance that dates back to days when wives typically did not own property of their own and were totally dependent on their husbands. To prevent them from being left destitute if their husbands died, these laws entitled them to a share of their husbands' property at death. The Kentucky legislature modernized its dower laws in 1942, but they still exist. This means that -- unlike in most other states -- a surviving spouse usually can’t inherit everything if her husband dies without a will, even if he leaves no children. Generally, she receives only her dower share.
According to Kentucky's dower laws, you'll receive 50 percent of your spouse's real property if he dies intestate, or without a will. You usually have no right to the other 50 percent unless you jointly owned the property with him or he bequeaths it to you in his will. A will overrides intestacy laws. Kentucky law provides that if your spouse owned the property in his sole name and died intestate, the other half of the property goes first to his children, then to his grandchildren if his children are not living. If all these heirs predecease him, his real estate will go to his parents, then to his siblings and finally to his nieces and nephews. The only way you would have an entitlement to the other half of your spouse's separately owned real property is if all these individuals predeceased him. If your spouse received his real estate from his parents and either of them is still living, the entirety of the property would revert back to them. In this case, you would not even receive 50 percent.
Your spouse’s personal property, including cash, investment accounts and everything that is not real estate, passes to his heirs by the same method as his real estate. You’re entitled to 50 percent, with the balance going to his children, grandchildren, parents, siblings, nieces and nephews. If none of these people are living, you would get the entirety of his personal property estate. However, Kentucky includes an exemption law, which gives spouses a little more if they ask for it.
Kentucky allows a surviving spouse to claim the first $15,000 of her partner’s personal property estate. The balance of the personal property then distributes 50/50 between her and her spouse’s other heirs. However, this is not an automatic right. If you want the first $15,000, you must petition the District Court for permission. You can’t use this exemption toward an interest in your spouse’s real estate.
Kentucky also allows a spouse to take an additional $2,500 in cash from a bank account held by the decedent. However, this $2,500 does not come off the top of the personal property estate. Instead, it is charged against your 50 percent share when the estate settles. If you elect to take the money, you must petition the court for this right as well. If you were to inherit $100,000 of your spouse’s personal property, you would actually receive $97,500 when the estate closes.
Beverly Bird is a practicing paralegal who has been writing professionally on legal subjects for over 30 years. She specializes in family law and estate law and has mediated family custody issues.