Inherit/inheritance seems to apply to heirs, successors, and new owners. Maybe new owner could apply, but it is strange to think of it that way, as it might suggest that the widow(er) didn't have a share in it until the spouse died.

Is there a better word than inheritance to describe the estate with respect to the surviving spouse? A better word than inherit to describe the widow(er) taking full ownership?

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    I think you need to clarify your question. The "estate" is what belonged to the person who died; it might include a half-share of a house. Would the word you are seeking apply to the half-share (in which case inherit is correct) or to the whole house and everything owned by either of the couple? Commented Jul 9, 2016 at 21:19
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    If she owned the estate with her husband before his death and she maintains the original concurrent estate, but with her husband's share transferred to her, she's keeping the estate undivided. I don't know if there's a specific word comparable to heir to refer to someone who retains an undivided estate, though. Commented Jul 9, 2016 at 23:33
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it is more about legal terminology than simple English. Possibly a question for law.stackexchange.com
    – ab2
    Commented Jul 9, 2016 at 23:53
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    @ab2 Legal terminology is not necessarily off topic as such. The question asks if there is a more accurate word than inherit/heir in the situation described; that is not off topic. The fact that answers provide legal terms simply indicates that there is no such word in common parlance—but that’s not the question’s fault. The question is not about legal terminology, unless you consider ‘inherit’ exclusively legal terminology as well. Asking if a word exists is not made off topic by the answer being, “No, but there is a legal term for it”. Commented Jul 10, 2016 at 9:54
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    It depends on the particular legal system in place. In the US, it depends on which state you live in. There really isn't a non-legal approach to this answer. Try searching "survivorship".
    – Phil Sweet
    Commented Jul 11, 2016 at 4:26

3 Answers 3


Yes. Such a widow who inherits her husband's estate is a "dowager." The inheritance is a "dower," and the verb is "to dower" (e.g., Dowager Jones' late husband dowered her the estate.)

  • Thank you! I wonder if you have any thoughts: the definition you linked seems to suggest that the woman didn't share the estate while the husband was alive. Am I reading that incorrectly? In any case, dower serves a lot better than inheritance. Commented Jul 9, 2016 at 23:23
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    It's worth adding that during much of the history of many western societies, a married woman was not legally permitted to own any property or money of her own - everything legally belonged to her husband. Therefore, a separate term (dowager) was relevant to describe a woman who did own property. At the present time the distinction is fairly irrelevant, since a woman can inherit property from someone else while she is still married and retain the sole ownership of it, as well as inheriting some or all of her husband's property if he dies.
    – alephzero
    Commented Jul 10, 2016 at 0:42
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    Also worth noting that this is pretty rare in current usage; I would expect very few readers to be familiar with it, except maybe within specialised technical communities (e.g. people particularly familiar with legal or historical usage, perhaps). The only sense I’ve seen in modern usage is dowager Duchess, from which one can’t immediately deduce the original more general meaning.
    – PLL
    Commented Jul 10, 2016 at 1:58
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    Makes me think of Downton Abbey's dowager countess.
    – flup
    Commented Jul 11, 2016 at 19:13
  • @flup A less fictional example from the same period would be Empress Dowager Cixi. Commented Jul 21, 2016 at 9:36

vest transitive verb 1a :  to place or give into the possession or discretion of some person or authority;especially :  to give to a person a legally fixed immediate right of present or future enjoyment of (as an estate) —M-W

In a joint tenancy arrangement, unlike a tenants in common arrangement, ownership would transfer as described in question if one owner outlives the other.

Where the property is held by co-owners as joint tenants and one co-owner dies, the remaining share would vest in the survivor or survivors by the right of survivorship and would not devolve under the will or intestacy - until of course the death of the last survivor, who can leave the whole of the property to who he pleases as sole owner. - http://www.lawteacher.net/resources/land-law/land-law-coowner.php

  • This use of "vest" seems to be an American English term. In British English "inherit" would be more common. BrE does use the adjective in the phrase "a vested interest" but that phrase does not necessarily imply legal ownership of something. oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/vested-interest
    – alephzero
    Commented Jul 10, 2016 at 0:47
  • @alephzero vest has this definition in the online dictionary you link to ... 1.2[NO OBJECT] (vest in) (Of power, property, etc.) come into the possession of:the bankrupt’s property vests in his trustee
    – k1eran
    Commented Jul 10, 2016 at 1:12
  • @alephzero also the link in answer is a UK site. Do you have evidence to say it's mostly AmE ?
    – k1eran
    Commented Jul 10, 2016 at 1:13
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    @k1eran No formal evidence, but I see it used much for frequently on internet forums in a US-specific context than from the UK. Maybe that's just because it seems to be a technical legal term, and US society is more litigious than the UK!
    – alephzero
    Commented Jul 10, 2016 at 2:56

I would say that the surviving spouse received the other half of the property by right of survivorship.

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