Under English common law and in colonial America, dower was the share of a deceased husband's real estate to which his widow was entitled after his death. After the widow's death, the real estate was then inherited as designated in her deceased husband's will; she had no rights to sell or bequeath the property independently. She did have rights to income from the dower during her lifetime, including rents and including income from crops grown on the land.
One-third was the share of her late husband's real property to which dower rights entitled her; the husband could increase the share beyond one-third in his will.
Where a mortgage or other debts offset the value of real estate and other property at the husband's death, dower rights meant that the estate could not be settled and the property could not be sold until the widow's death. In the 18th and 19th centuries, increasingly dower rights were ignored in order to settle estates more quickly, especially when mortgages or debts were involved.
In 1945 in the United States, a federal law abolished dower, though in most states, one-third of a husband's estate is awarded to a widow automatically if he dies without a will (intestate). Some laws limit the rights of a husband to bequeath less than one-third share to his widow except in prescribed circumstances.
A husband's right of inheritance is called curtesy.