Michigan has some of the more interesting inheritance and estate laws in the country. Most states have abolished the antiquated concept of dower -- a wife’s absolute right to the use of her husband’s property after his death -- but Michigan law still recognizes this and other provisions that make disinheriting a spouse virtually impossible.
A Widow’s Dower Right
The concept of dower dates back to a time when women were not permitted to hold title to property, or rarely did so, leaving them potentially homeless if their husbands predeceased them and left the homestead or other property to someone else. Michigan’s dower law gives a widow the use of one-third of her deceased husband’s lands for as long as she lives. Michigan’s dower law only protects widows; widowers don’t have a corresponding right, called curtesy, to the use of their wives’ property.
A Surviving Spouse’s Other Options
A widow has three options under Michigan law when her spouse dies: she can accept the terms of his will and whatever bequest he left her; she can claim her dower right; or she can claim an elective share of his probate estate -- any property he owns that does not pass directly to a beneficiary, such as life insurance proceeds or joint bank accounts. Claiming an elective share means rejecting the terms of his will and taking an amount provided for by state law instead. Michigan’s elective share is half what she would have received if her spouse had died without a will, or intestate. A widower has only two options under Michigan law: he can accept the terms of his spouse’s will or he can claim an elective share.
Dying Without a Will
If you die without a valid will, the state decides who gets your property in a set order called intestate succession. Under Michigan law, your spouse receives your entire estate if you have no children or grandchildren and your parents aren’t living. If you’re not married at the time of your death, your children inherit everything. If you’re married and have children, your spouse gets the first $150,000 of your estate and half the balance, and your children share the other half -- unless your spouse is not the other parent of at least one of your children. In that case, she receives only $100,000 and half the balance of your estate. If your parents are living but you leave no children, your spouse gets the first $150,000 and three-quarters of your remaining estate with the other quarter going to your parents. Your parents can inherit only if you’re not married and have no children. If you have no living parents, your estate would go to your siblings. But none of these people can inherit from you if they don’t survive you by 120 hours.
A surviving spouse is entitled to a $15,000 homestead allowance from the estate under Michigan law. This is in addition to any bequest, dower right or elective share she might accept. The allowance has top priority -- the executor of the estate must pay it first before any of the decedent’s debts or even his burial expenses. If the decedent has no spouse, the homestead allowance passes to his minor children and any adult children who depended on him for support. Michigan law also allows for a “reasonable” family allowance to the decedent’s immediate family, money intended to provide for them for up to a year while the estate is in probate.