What is 'Curtesy'

Curtesy is a common law right of a husband to the estate and property of his deceased wife. Also known as statutory share, the rights apply to the man if a child was born during the lifetime of the marriage.

BREAKING DOWN 'Curtesy'

When a man's spouse dies, he becomes the beneficiary of her assets. For the right of curtesy to be established, the couple must have born a child during the time of their marriage. The child must be eligible to inherit his mother's estate upon his or her maturity. The husband who inherits the estate may use it until his death, however, he may not sell or transfer its ownership to any person other than this child.

Common Law

Many states still have laws on the books that define dower and curtesy rights. Dower is a common law that entitles a widow to a portion of her husband's estate in the absence of a will. The provision of dower allows the wife to provide for herself and any children born during the marriage. In most circumstances, the widow is granted up to one-third interest in her husband's assets.

Kentucky's statute, for example, on curtesy and dower states: "After the death of the husband or wife intestate, the survivor shall have an estate in fee of one-half (1/2) of the surplus real estate of which the other spouse or anyone for the use of the other spouse, was seized of an estate in fee simple at the time of death, and shall have an estate for his or her life in one-third (1/3) of any real estate of which the other spouse or anyone for the use of the other spouse, was seized of an estate in fee simple during the coverture but not at the time of death, unless the survivor's right to such interest has been barred, forfeited or relinquished. The survivor shall also have an absolute estate in one-half (1/2) of the surplus personalty left by the decedent. Unless the context otherwise requires, any reference in the statutes of this state to 'dower' or 'curtesy' shall be deemed to refer to the surviving spouse's interest created by this section."

Common law is a body of unwritten laws based on precedents established by the courts. Common law influences the decision-making process in novel cases where the outcome cannot be determined based on existing statutes. The U.S. common law system evolved from a pre-colonial tradition in England, which spread to North America and other continents during the colonial period. Civil law is a comprehensive, codified set of legal statutes created by legislators; some of these laws are based on common law. Judges may use common law in deciding cases where there is no applicable civil law. 

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