Dowries & Marriage Settlements

Chapter 5 : Life Interest & Wills

Life Interest

A life interest was the legal right to occupy or derive rents from land for the duration of the beneficiary’s life. It would cease on his or her death. A father might bequeath an unmarried daughter a life-interest in land by way of charge on her brother’s inheritance – this would be most likely to happen where he did not have enough ready cash to make a bequest of capital. The brother could not alienate the land without making suitable alternative arrangements, to which, of course, she might not agree.

As noted above, a widow would have a life-interest in the heir’s lands. Bess of Hardwick arranged with her second and third husbands, Sir William Cavendish and Sir William St Loe, that, rather than having a dower of one-third of their estates, she would have a life-interest in the whole. The benefit of this, apart from making Bess personally secure, was that, if her husband died whilst the heir was a minor, there would be no surplus income over her life-interest for any guardian, so it would be unlikely that anyone would seek to be granted the wardship of the under-age heir, allowing Bess to remain in control.


Until 1536 in England, land could not pass by will – it devolved in accordance with the feudal structure (see here). After that date, half of a holding that was not already entailed, could be passed as the testator saw fit. Wills therefore generally deal with moveable goods and cash until that time.

A married woman could not make a legally binding will without her husband’s consent unless the right had been reserved to her in the marriage articles. Of course, she could make an informal will, directing disposal of her property, which her husband might honour. Widows and femmes sole had the same rights as men.

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