Under the traditional common law system, a wife lost the majority of her rights in exchange of her husband’s protection once she got married. Under the principle of coverture, the wife became subordinate to her husband, and he exercised exclusive rights over her and the property she owned. Until mid-19th century the common law regarding women prevailed in the USA. In 1939 Mississippi was the first state to actively challenge property laws relating to women following the case of Fisher v Allen. Gradually, other states followed the same trend.
Under the Married Women’s Property Acts a woman can own her own property and partake in transactions relating to them in any way she desires. Some states, including New York, enacted this act to change the common law system in regards to women’s property rights The property of a woman, real or personal, acquired before her marriage is solely hers in addition to the rents and profits that become of it. Once married, the property is held separate from her husband’s property. However, property acquired by the husband and the wife during the marriage, known as common property, is held equally by both spouses under the community property system. This system is present in the western states including Texas, California and Washington.
Under traditional common law, the right to execute contracts was a privilege preserved for men. Women could only contract as their husband’s agent or obtain goods through his credit account. This was inconvenient for women, especially during wartime when men were away from home for long and uncertain periods of time. According to the Married Women’s Property Act, a woman can execute contracts in her own name. Any contract that a woman undertook before marriage retains its validity.
Drafting of Wills
A wife also has the right to write her own will and distribute her property as she sees fit with or without her husband’s consent. Women were first allowed to draft their own wills in Connecticut in 1809.
The debts of a husband are not tied to his wife’s separate property unless she has contracted to do so in accordance with her property rights. Property rights also protect the land inherited by a widow from being claimed in respect to the husband’s debts upon his death. The common property between husband and wife acquired during the marriage can be possessed by debtors in the recovery of debts.
Prior to the Married Women’s Property Act, a woman was forbidden from engaging in legal proceedings. Her husband was responsible for torts committed by wife before and after the marriage. The act gives her the right to sue and be sued in relation to any civil or criminal proceedings. She can also appear in court as a witness with or without her husband’s consent.
- Britannica; Married Women’s Property Acts; Encyclopedia Britannica; May 2011
- Mississippi History: Betsy Love and the Mississippi Married Women’s Property Act; LeAnne Howe; 2005
- Law Library of Congress: Married Women’s Property Laws
- National Paralegal College; Development of Rights of Women; National Paralegal College; 2011
- Lexis Nexis: Property
- Bank Rate; Community Property, Common Law, Assets and Debts; Jay MacDonald; 2009