South Carolina Marital Property and Dower Laws

By Mary Jane Freeman

portrait of a young couple and their son standing over a coffin

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In South Carolina, when a marriage comes to an end, property is divided between spouses in a manner that is fair and just based on the circumstances. However, if a spouse dies while the couple is still married, property is distributed by a different standard. In years past, a wife would be entitled to a "dower," an automatic one-third share of her deceased husband's property. Nowadays, the property a wife inherits depends on the terms of her husband's will, if he had one, and state law.

Dower Rights

Prior to 1984, South Carolina recognized dower rights. These rights were two-fold. First, dower guaranteed a married woman one-third of her husband's property when he died. Second, dower prevented a husband from selling land behind his wife's back. This is because, under the principle of dower, a husband could not sell land without the wife's knowledge and consent. As a result, dower provided a measure of financial protection for wives. However, the state abolished dower rights as a result of the 1984 case of Boan v. Watson. In a 5-1 decision, the South Carolina Supreme Court found the state's dower laws violated the equal protection guarantee of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. In short, dower treated husbands and wives differently, granting rights to one and not the other in identical situations.

Property Division Upon Divorce

Instead of adhering to dower principles, South Carolina now divides property between divorcing spouses based on a method known as equitable distribution. Under this distribution scheme, marital property -- property acquired during the marriage -- is divided in a manner that is fair and just, though not necessarily equal. In divorce, the court will determine a wife's equitable share of marital property, along with that of the husband, based on several factors set forth in state law. These factors include the length of the marriage, each spouse's emotional and physical health, marital misconduct, any custody and alimony orders, and any other factor the court finds relevant.

Property & Death (Will)

When a spouse dies, his property is distributed. This includes his share of marital property as well as his separate property, collectively known as the decedent's estate. Separate property is anything a spouse acquires before marriage or during the marriage by inheritance or gift. While a spouse's separate property cannot be divided and given to the other spouse in divorce, it can be when he dies. If the deceased spouse had a will, he may distribute all of his separate property and his share of marital property any way he likes. However, state law prohibits him from disinheriting his wife. If he attempts to do so, the surviving spouse may claim an "elective share" of his estate, entitling her to one-third of the property under state law. Although dower is no longer recognized in the state, elective share operates in a similar manner.

Property & Death (No Will)

If a spouse dies without a will in South Carolina, his property is distributed according to the state's intestate succession laws. Under these laws, a surviving spouse will receive the decedent's entire estate if the decedent doesn't leave any surviving children behind. However, if there are surviving children, the surviving spouse only receives one-half of the estate while the children receive the other half. After divorce, these automatic inheritance rights are extinguished by state law. Therefore, former spouses will not inherit from one another unless subsequent action is taken, such as drafting a new will specifically granting property to an ex-spouse.