Select Page

It’s not about being nice…

You know what next week is, right?

It’s RootsTech. One of the biggest genealogical block parties in the world. Thousands of people all converging on the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City, and none of them — not one — will roll their eyes when The Legal Genealogist talks about the goodies you can find in legal notices. Or the kinds of records an ordinary family can find at the National Archives. Or the records created for a woman under dower or dowry. Or copyright.

Well, maybe copyright, but you get what I mean.

Yes, a whole bunch of presentations at RootsTech:

• Wednesday, 8 a.m., RT2001: Access and Preservation Forum, short presentation on copyright
• Wednesday, 3 p.m., RT5687, NARA Mythbusters: Your Family IS in the Archives
• Thursday, 9:30 a.m., RT5679, Dower and Dowry: Women, Property & Legal Records
• Friday, 9:30 a.m., RT1876, 2019: Year of the Copyright (livestreamed)
• Saturday, 9:30 a.m., RT6951, Advertising the Law: The Gems in the Legal Notices

And as you can imagine the prep is in high gear.

So we’re probably going to be a bit thin in the blog for the next 10 days or so, except for an occasional foray into genealogical alphabet soup.

2020 letter C

We’re up to the letter C for 2020, and let’s go with this one.

C is for curtesy.

No, that’s not misspelled. I’m not talking about what you’re supposed to do when you meet royalty (curtsy1) and it’s not about being nice (courtesy2).

This, according to the legal dictionaries, is the “estate to which by common law a man is entitled, on the death of his wife, in the lands or tenements of which she was seised in possession in fee-simple or in tail during their coverture, provided they have had lawful issue born alive which might have been capable of inheriting the estate. It is a freehold estate for the term of his natural life.”3

And there you have it.

Oh. That’s not very helpful?

Okay, let’s break it down.

A widow, remember, historically was entitled to dower under the common law: she got a life estate in one-third of the lands the husband owned at his death — and sometimes even owned at any time during his life — a “provision which the law makes for a widow out of the lands or tenements of her husband, for her support and the nurture of her children.”4 She didn’t own her dower land, but she had the right to live there the rest of her life (and the dower land usually included the house), farm the land, mine it if it had minerals.

This is what the widower was entitled to under the common law: a life estate in all the lands his wife owned at her death. Because it’s a life estate, he didn’t own the land outright, but had the right to live there during his lifetime, farm the land, mine it, and the like.

With some limits.

First off, the wife had to be “seised in possession in fee-simple or in tail.”

That just means she had to actually own the land, either outright (seised in fee simple) or subject to it being passed down a particular bloodline (seised in tail).5

Second, she had to own it “during their coverture” and that just means while they were married.6

And then comes the kicker: “provided they have had lawful issue born alive which might have been capable of inheriting the estate.”

That means the wife had to have a child by that husband during the marriage (“lawful issue”) and that child had to have been born alive — not a stillbirth. A child born alive by Caesarian section after the mother’s death didn’t qualify because that birth wouldn’t have been during the marriage.7

And that child, when born, had to have been “capable of inheriting the estate.” So, for example, in the case of land entailed to male heirs (limited to the sons of a particular bloodline), a daughter born alive wouldn’t qualify. In the case of land entailed to female heirs (the more rare case of inheritance limited to the daughters of a particular bloodline), a son born alive wouldn’t qualify.8

So it has nothing to do with being nice.

Well, maybe a little.

I mean, there’s that whole child during the marriage thing, after all…

Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “2020 alphabet soup: C is for…,” The Legal Genealogist ( : posted 19 Feb 2020).


  1. See ( : accessed 19 Feb 2020), “curtsy.”
  2. Ibid., “courtesy.”
  3. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 811, “curtesy.”
  4. Ibid., 393, “dower.”
  5. See generally ibid., 1074-1075, “seisin.”
  6. Ibid., 298, “coverture.”
  7. See ibid., 163, “Caesarian operation.”
  8. See Fleming v. Sexton, 172 N.C. 250, 253 (1916).
Print Friendly, PDF & Email