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Dower and reversion and merger, oh my!

Because The Legal Genealogist is headed off to Detroit later this week for the amazing free Family History Festival at the Detroit Public Library, Michigan is getting some special attention here.

And there’s no question that can be more puzzling than the one asked by reader R.A. Hill in April 2012 about a Michigan land deal that left him baffled as they brought a lot of legal concepts into play.

Here’s a reprise. First, the fact pattern:

Plat map, Alpine Twp., Kent Co., MI

A 40-acre tract in Alpine Township, Kent County, Michigan, was first purchased on 15 February 1851 from the Michigan State Land Office by Bella Chase on certificate 3177 for $160. Chase made a partial payment of $40 leaving a balance of $120 owed.

Chase died intestate 9 March 1859. On 18 April 1859, Bella’s widow Rachael M. Chase petitioned the Judge of Probate for the County of Kent for appointment as administrator. On 14 February 1860, commissioners appointed by the court set off one-third part of the real estate as dower to the widow. The 40-acre tract purchased on certificate 3177 was set off as dower. The tract was valued at $833.33; however, a balance of $120, plus interest, was still owned to the State of Michigan. A license to sell the real estate of Bella Chase dec’d was granted on 19 March 1860 to the widow.

The “Reversion of Dower” to the 40-acre tract was sold on 2 May 1860 to Erasmus Chapman for $78 at public auction after notices were duly published. On the same day, Erasmus Chapman and Eliza his wife sold the same reversion to David Herrick for $78. Then on 1 June 1860, David Herrick & Margaret his wife of Alpine sold the reversion to James Snowden for $80. Finally on 6 June 1860, Rachel Chase sold the certificate from the State of Michigan for the 40-acre tract to James Snowden for $500, authorizing Snowden to receive a Patent on the tract. Snowden paid the principal and interest on Certificate 3177 on 11 August 1860 and received a Patent on the same date. On 24 August 1860, James sold the same 40-acre tract, except for five acres in the NW corner, to Rachael Chase for $500. James apparently kept the five acres for his $80 purchase of the reversion of Rachael’s dower and perhaps his payment of the $120 owed on the purchase price.

The key question from all of this: “I don’t understand what ‘selling the reversion of dower’ means in this example,” the reader wrote. “What role did it play in the final outcome?”

Cool question!!

Let’s start with some basic concepts.

Dower was what the common law called the right of a widow to certain of the lands of her husband for her support and the support of her children.1 What the widow got, however, was not what a widow today might get on the death of a husband. What a widow usually gets today is fee simple ownership: total unlimited ownership that she can sell, give away, put in her will, mortgage, etc.2

To the contrary, dower was a life estate, not a fee simple ownership.3 At common law, it was usually a life estate in one-third of the husband’s lands.4

That was also the prevailing rule under Michigan law at the time: “The widow of every deceased person shall be entitled to dower, or the use, during her natural life of one-third part of all the lands whereof her husband was seized…”5 Here, then, setting the 40 acres of land aside for Rachael’s dower only meant setting it aside as a life estate for her — her right to live on, use, farm the land during her life only.

The reversion of dower referred to is what would happen to the land after the life estate came to an end. When Rachael died, if nothing happened in the meantime to change the ownership of the land, that 40-acre tract would “revert” to the original Bella Chase estate.6

These two things — the life estate that Rachael had and the reversionary interest that the estate had — are totally separate interests in this land. Each one could be sold separately. In the language of the law, each interest was alienable.7

That meant that Rachael was legally able to — and did — sell her own interest in that dower land as a separate part of the land deal, but only what she owned: a life estate. It also meant that, as administrator of the estate, she also was legally able to sell the estate’s interest — the reversion of dower, meaning the right to own the land free and clear, but only after Rachael’s death.

But something else much more important happened in this chain of transactions. On 6 June 1860, one man — James Snowden — ended up owning both interests in the land. He’d already bought the reversion of dower on June 1st. On June 6th, he purchased the life estate from Rachael.

Now think about that for a moment: James now owns all of the rights that Rachael would have during her lifetime and all of the rights the estate would have after Rachael’s death. Sounds pretty much like fee simple, doesn’t it? And that’s exactly what the law does in that sort of situation. It applies something called the doctrine of merger.8

As explained by Blackstone, “Whenever a greater estate and a less coincide and meet in one and the same person, without any intermediate estate, the less is immediately annihilated; or, in the law phrase, is said to be merged, that is, sunk or drowned, in the greater.”9

The greater interest here was the estate’s interest, the rights that would exist after Rachael’s death. The lesser interest was the life estate. There wasn’t any intermediate interest — immediately on Rachael’s death, the estate would have full fee simple ownership. So what happened here was, by a complicated set of transactions, Rachael got the life estate and the reversionary interest joined in a single owner (James Snowden) which wiped out the life estate and turned the land ownership into a straight fee simple.

When James sold the land back to Rachael in August, keeping the five acres for his troubles and his expenses, she owned it free and clear: the life estate was gone. Why would Rachael care to go through all these steps just to erase the life estate? Because as a life tenant, not only was she legally restricted in what she could do with the land, she could even be sued by other heirs for waste, meaning a use of the land that didn’t benefit those heirs.10

But why the complicated transactions involving a whole chain of people? Most likely because of the need to hold an auction and, in general, to satisfy the probate court that this was a good thing for the estate. It turns out that — except for the man who first bought the estate’s interest at the auction — all of these people were very close neighbors and friends — and James Snowden was not only Rachael’s next-door neighbor but an old hand at dealing with the Michigan Land Office.

Bottom line: This was most likely a set-up deal designed to accomplish just what it eventually did accomplish: wiping out the life estate, turning the land interest to a fee simple ownership, with no money out of the pockets of the young widow and her family.


SOURCES

Originally posted 17 April 2012.

  1. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 393, “dower.”
  2. See ibid., 482, “fee-simple” (“An absolute or fee simple estate is one in which the owner is entitled to the entire property, with unconditional power of disposition during his life, and descending to his heirs and legal representatives upon his death intestate”).
  3. See ibid., 720, “life estate.”
  4. William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, Book the Second: Of the Rights of Things (Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1765-1769), 129; html version, Yale Law School, Avalon Project (http://avalon.law.yale.edu/subject_menus/blackstone.asp : accessed 16 Apr 2012).
  5. Chapter 89, Estates in Dower, § 2772, in Thomas M. Cooley, compiler, The Compiled Laws of the State of Michigan (Lansing: Hosmer & Kerr, State Printers, 1857) 2: 850.
  6. See ibid., 1040, “reversion.”
  7. Ibid., 59, “alienable.” See also ibid., “alienate.”
  8. See ibid., 769, “merger.” See also J. M. Perry, “Merger of Estates,” Virginia Law Register, Vol. 5, No. 10 (Feb., 1900), 651-660.
  9. Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, Book the Second: Of the Rights of Things, 177.
  10. Black, A Dictionary of Law, 1236, “waste.”
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