Business, Legal & Accounting Glossary

Definition: Curtesy

Quick Summary of Curtesy

Curtesy tenure is the legal term denoting the life interest which a widower may claim in the lands of his deceased wife, under certain conditions. The tenure relates only to those lands of which his wife was in her lifetime actually seised and not therefore to an estate of inheritance

What is the dictionary definition of Curtesy?

Dictionary Definition

curtesy. cur·te·sy. noun. The definition of curtesy is a law that states a man gains the rights to his wife’s land after she dies as long as they had children together. An example of curtesy is a widower keeping his wife’s house after she died.

  • The tenure that a man is entitled to over the property of his deceased wife if there is a child who could inherit it.
  • The tenure that a widower holds over the property of his deceased wife.

n. in old common law, the right of a surviving husband to a life estate in the lands of his deceased wife, if they had a surviving child or children who would inherit the land. A few US states still recognize this charming anachronism.

Full Definition of Curtesy

The right applied to the husband of a deceased wife, granting the man estate and property assets. To qualify as a beneficiary, a child must have been born during the marriage with assets passing onto the child upon maturity. Curtesy ensures a husband can use the estate but cannot transfer ownership or sell the estate to anyone besides the child.

Common-Law provided that upon marriage a husband acquired a right, sometimes called a freehold estate, to the use and profits of his wife’s lands. His estate jure uxoris (Latin for “in the right of the wife”) continued only during the marriage and terminated upon the death of either spouse or upon their divorce. At early common law in England, an absolute Divorce could be obtained only by an Act of Parliament. Consequently, for practical purposes, the husband acquired a right to the use and profit of the land during the joint lives of the parties. This estate was subject to sale or mortgage by the husband and could be reached to satisfy the claims of his creditors. The estate jure uxoris virtually disappeared with the enactment of Married Women’s Acts, which gave married women a right to manage their own separate estates.

Pursuant to common law, upon the birth of a child capable of inheriting the land, a husband acquires a life estate, or property interest, the duration of which is limited to the life of the party holding it or to that of some other person, in the lands his wife owns. This estate is designated as curtesy initiate, which replaces the husband’s estate jure uxoris under early common law. The husband can sell or mortgage the land, and it can be reached to satisfy the claims of his creditors. Upon the death of the wife, it becomes curtesy consummate.

In some states, due to the Married Women’s Acts, the birth of a child does not give the husband a vested interest in his wife’s property. Until the death of the wife, the husband has a right of curtesy, which is not a present right, but which might develop into a legally enforceable right if not barred, extinguished, or divested. This interest cannot be subjected to the claims of the husband’s creditors.

The right of curtesy rests upon proof of a legally recognised marriage, as distinguished from a Good Faith marriage or a de facto marriage, one in which the parties live together as Husband and Wife, but the union has no legal effect due to defects in form, such as an invalid license. A Voidable marriage, one that is valid when entered into and that remains valid until either party obtains a lawful court order dissolving the marital relationship, suffices for purposes of curtesy if the marriage is not rendered null before the right to the estate arises.

Curtesy has gradually lost much of its previous significance in the law. In some jurisdictions, curtesy attaches only to the real estate that the wife owns at death, rather than to the real estate owned by the wife during the marriage. In others, curtesy has been abolished and replaced by a statutory elective share in the wife’s estate. A few jurisdictions have enacted statutes that embody the basic principles of common-law curtesy but with some modification.

Common law provides that an absolute divorce bars a claim of curtesy. A legal separation – sometimes called a divorce, or a mensa et thoro “from bed and board” – does not terminate the marital relationship. In the absence of an express statute, such a divorce will not bar curtesy. This is also true in regard to an interlocutory decree of divorce, a temporary, interim order of the court.

Statutes in some states provide that curtesy can be denied upon proof of certain types of misconduct, such as Adultery, voluntary sexual intercourse of a married person with a person other than one’s spouse. Several states have statutes preserving curtesy if a divorce or legal separation was obtained because of the fault of the wife. Statutes in many states provide that a murderer is not entitled to property rights in the estate of the victim. Some decisions apply these statutes to cases involving curtesy. In other states, these interests are barred upon the principle that a person must not be permitted to profit from his or her own wrong. In accordance with this theory, a Constructive Trust will be declared in favour of the heirs or devisees of the deceased wife who is murdered by her husband.

Examples of Curtesy in a sentence

Camville survived her by about 29 years during which time he retained possession of the barony under the curtesy of England. Camville survived her by roughly 34 years during which time he retained possession of the barony under the curtesy of England.
This is done as a substitute for the common law rights of dower and curtesy.
At one time the right of the wife to dower and of the husband to an estate by curtesy depended upon the doctrine of seisin.

Synonyms For Curtesy


Cite Term

To help you cite our definitions in your bibliography, here is the proper citation layout for the three major formatting styles, with all of the relevant information filled in.

Page URL
Modern Language Association (MLA):
Curtesy. Payroll & Accounting Heaven Ltd. September 22, 2021
Chicago Manual of Style (CMS):
Curtesy. Payroll & Accounting Heaven Ltd. (accessed: September 22, 2021).
American Psychological Association (APA):
Curtesy. Retrieved September 22, 2021, from website:

Definition Sources

Definitions for Curtesy are sourced/syndicated and enhanced from:

  • A Dictionary of Economics (Oxford Quick Reference)
  • Oxford Dictionary Of Accounting
  • Oxford Dictionary Of Business & Management

This glossary post was last updated: 27th April, 2020 | 50 Views.