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Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis



W Willard Wirtz, Secretary





WOMEN'S BUREAU. Maty Oobl.n Keyi»fi.nR, Oifec<or



HER L E 6 A L R I G H T S /



Publication of a leaflet titled "Know Your Rights" was
recommended by the President's Commission on the
Status of Women, at the suggestion of the Committee on
Civil and Political Rights, "to enable more women to
bccome aware of their legal position."
After studying the application of State family and property
laws to married women, who as a group form the largest
category of women in the labor force, the Committee came
to the cop.clusion that there was need for such a leaflet
"dealing with the rights and obligations which women have
under existing laws."
The Committee member who originated the suggestion is
Mrs. Harriet F. Pilpcl, a New York attorney and a coauthor of this leaflet.








As a Homemaker—What Are Your Rights and Responsibilities in Your Home?





As a Working Woman—What Are Your Rights if Y o u Take a Job Outside Your Home?



By Death—What Are Your Rights and Responsibilities on the Death of Your Husband?



By Divorce—How W i l l Your Rights and Responsibilities Be AfTccted by Separation or




Today, one w o r k e r i n every three is a woman. T h r e e out of five
w o m e n w o r k e r s are m a r r i e d . One o u t of three m a r r i e d w o m e n
T o d a y , 45 percent o f a l l w o m e n age 18 t h r o u g h 6 4 are i n p a i d
e m p l o y m e n t . Last year 32 m i l l i o n w o m e n w o r k e d at some t i m e
d u r i n g the year. So we see that w o r k i n g f o r wages does n o t end
w i t h marriage.
T h e m o d e r n w o m a n can reasonably expect that she w i l l w o r k at
some t i m e i n her l i f e and so is l i k e l y to be b o t h a h o m e m a k e r and
a wage earner.
I t is j u s t as i m p o r t a n t f o r y o u to k n o w what y o u r rights are as i t
is to have those rights. I f y o u d o n ' t k n o w what y o u r rights a r e —
at least i n g e n e r a l — y o u w o n ' t be able to use t h e m .


This leaflet should give you a general idea of what your rights are. However, laws differ in each
State concerning property, marriage and divorce, and the relations of parents and children.
Historically, family and property laws provided different rights for married women than for married
men. Under the old law, it has been said, husband and wife were one and that one was the husband.
Many of the differences between the rights of married men and married women have been abolished,
but some remain.
The law governing property rights of husbands and wives in the United States today comes from
two basic legal sources:
• The community-property system, brought to this country by the French and Spanish
settlers and in effect in eight States—Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico.
Texas, and Washington.
# The common law brought from England which forms the legal basis for the laws in the
other 42 States.
The questions and answers that follow can be a general guide to your rights as a married woman
who works outside her home.
For further information as to what the law is in your State, write to the Women's Bureau, Department of Labor, for the material they have prepared on the legal rights of women in each State.
The address is:
Women's Bureau
U.S. Department of Labor
Washington, D.C. 20210
If you have a particular problem, you should talk to a lawyer or the nearest Legal A i d Society in
your neighborhood, or consult the local Bar Association which will help you locate a lawyer.


Who has the right

to decide




Y o u r husband, as the person legally responsible for
family support, has the right to make this decision.
Unless he agrees to a separate residence, legally you
must live where he provides the home, which is usually
where he works.
W^ho is responsible for family


In almost all States, your husband must support you
and the children to the best of his ability. If he is sick
or for some other good reason is unable to provide
support, then you must support the family to the extent that you are able. I n some States, both the husband
and the wife are legally obligated to pay family

T h e law increasingly takes into account the need to assure the
rights of a m a r r i e d woman as basic to the stability of the family.
She is a better wife and mother i f she understands what her rights

What type of support

must your husband


Support includes "necessaries" such as food, clothing,
medical care, a place to live, and other things, in accordance with your family's income and position in life.

If your husband
you do?

does not support

you, what


Whether you live in the same house or not, you can
charge to your husband everything that is necessary
for your support and the support of your children. If
you cannot get these "necessaries" on credit, the law in
all States makes special provision for the court to help
you. If you need advice on the laws in your State,
consult the Legal A i d Society or a family service

780-250 0 - 6 5 2
Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis

Can your husband assign his tvages to
other than you without your consent?


In many States he cannot arrange for his creditors to
collect his wages directly from his employer. However,
in some States there are no regulations. It may be
helpful to find out if the law in your State permits a
husband to assign his wages and, if so, whether the
written consent of the wife is required.

Can your husband mortgage the family
as a security for a loan without your consent?
Approximately half the States do not allow furniture to
be used as security for a loan without the signature of
both husband and wife.

Does the law protect
taken by creditors?

the family

home from


In most States the family home or homestead cannot
be sold to satisfy debts, except to pay the mortgage
placed on the home to meet the purchase price.

If your husband is injured in a ivay that affects
your marriage, can you collect damages from the
person tcho injured
Generally, no. However, about a fourth of the States
now permit you to bring a legal action against a third
party to recover damages for injuries that interfere
with your husband's support or companionship.
If you are injured so that you can no longer make and
manage a home for your husband and children, in most
States your husband can collect damages f r o m the
person who injured you.

Do you have the right to any cash money
your husband for your otvn use?


Legally, you have only the right to be supported i n accordance with your husband's income and mode of
living. Usually, the husband and wife decide between
themselves how the money and income w i l l be handled.

Can you own money or other property
from your husband?


Yes. Y o u r separate property may be:
• Personal property, such as money, bonds,
stock, jewelry, clothing, other personal possessions.
• Real property, like a house or a f a r m or a
piece of land.

Can you dispose of your separate
out your husbantVs consent?



Generally, you may dispose of your personal property
in any way that you wish. However, if you wish to
sell or mortgage your separate real property, in the
majority of States it is necessary for both you and
your husband to sign the deed or legal paper, just as in
many States in order for your husband to sell or
mortgage his separate real property, you as well as he
must sign the legal document. This is because each of
you has a right to inherit a certain portion of the other's
real estate and the law gives you the right to sign or
refuse to sign.
Are you






Generally, no. Y o u may be responsible, however, if
your husband gives you property for the purpose of
keeping it out of the hands of his creditors.


What is your right to a gift your husband
you, such as a fur coat, jewelry, or a car?


The gift is yours to keep, sell, or otherwise dispose of.
However, if your husband's creditors insist that the gift
was given to avoid payment of his debts, you may be
called on to prove the gift was not made for this
Who owns property


for family


Whether you work for wages or work in the home,
your efforts as a member of the marriage partnership
make it possible for the family to acquire possessions
such as a house, furniture, and an automobile. In the
community-property States, property acquired by joint
efforts during the marriage belongs equally to husband
and wife. In other States, it is a wise practice to buy
the property in both names; otherwise, it belongs to
the person named in the title.
What are your
to the property
husband owned before


This is his separate property just as what you owned
before marriage is your separate property. However,
what he owned before marriage may provide you with

a better basis of support and credit. Each spouse has
certain inheritance rights in the separate property of
the other spouse.
What are your rights to the money your husband
gets during marriage as a result of his work?
In community-property States—Arizona, California,
Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, and
Washington—money that either of you gets through
earnings, or investment of earnings, or profits after your
marriage goes into a common fund that belongs to
both of you.
In common-law States you each own what you earn.
Do you have as much to say as your husband
bringing up the children?


Yes, in most States you and your husband have equal
rights in the care, discipline, education, and rearing of
minor children. However, in a few States the husband
has the preferred right.
Can you make a trip, get a passport, and leave
the country without your husbandU


as a w o r k i n g w o m a n


W H A T A R E Y O U R R I G H T S IF Y O U T A K E A J O B O U T S I D E T H E H O M E ?
Do you have the right to earn money by working
outside your home whether your husband agrees
or not?
Yes. I n our democracy married women have the
freedom to choose whether to work or not to work.
However, partners to a marriage find that a major
decision like this requires open and frank discussion
between them before a decision is made, since it is
essential that the welfare of the children receive primary

Does a working mother
child care expenses?

have any tax offset


Yes. The Federal law and some State income tax laws
permit certain deductions for child care expenses. Talk
w i t h your local tax office, a lawyer, or your Legal A i d
Society to find out about this.

Can you have a bank account in your own


Yes. In all States, whether you are employed or not,
you do not need to have your husband's consent to
start a bank account.
Can you use the money you earn in any way you
Yes. In most States it is your separate property and
you may buy things, or invest your money, or keep it
in your own bank account. However, in the 8 community-property States, earnings belong to the common
fund and usually are controlled by the husband.
Can you make contracts of your own as you wish?
Yes. I n most States your right to make contracts is
part of your right to own, hold, and sell property in
your own name. Some States limit this right in regard
to special kinds of contracts. For example, in some
States a wife cannot guarantee the payment of another
person's debt.

M a r r i e d w o m e n w h o w o r k e d i n 1 9 6 3 accounted, o n t h e average,
f o r a b o u t o n e - f i f t h o f the t o t a l f a m i l y i n c o m e . O f t h e m a r r i e d
w o m e n w h o w o r k e d i n M a r c h 1 9 6 4 , n e a r l y t w o o u t o f five h a d
c h i l d r e n u n d e r 12 vears o f age.

(.an you make a contract ivith your


In most States you can, but in some you and your
husband can do so only through a third person who
acts as trustee.
If you work in your husban(Vs
have a legal right to be paid?

business, do you

No. Legally, in most States your husband does not
have to pay you if you work in his business. Some
States, however, allow you to make a contract with your
husband which obligates him to pay you for working in
his business or profession.
Can you establish a separate


Yes. I n most States you may have your own business
that you can set up and run with your own property
and earnings. A few States require court approval for
you to do this, and some States require your husband's
consent. Also, you are responsible for the debts of

your own business; your husband does not have to pay
them any more than you have to pay his.
If your husband borrows money
you make him pay it back?




Yes, in most States; but you would probably have to
bring a legal action to accomplish this. I f you have a
problem getting borrowed money back, discuss it with
a lawyer or the Legal A i d Society.
If you buy or contribute
money toward a major
family purchase, such as a car or a television set,
what are your rights to ownership?
Unless there is a title or a record establishing otherwise,
such purchases are generally considered to be the property of the husband. It is wise family practice to put
the bill of sale in both names. This w i l l help protect
your interest in the event your husband dies or the
marriage ends in separation or divorce.


by death

Hoiv can you get money for living
your husband^s estate is settled?



In most States, the laws provide that small savings
accounts in the husband's name may be taken by the
wife right away, before his estate is probated. The
limit, usually between $300 to $1,000, varies by State.
Larger amounts are part of his estate and, as such,
must be handled through the courts. This takes time.
Y o u r husband's safe deposit box or one you own jointly
with him usually will be locked upon his death until
certain formal steps are taken.
Therefore, it is wise to have money that you can get
hold of quickly in emergencies. Money in a joint bank
account usually can be drawn on immediately. Y o u

may usually cash your husband's last pay check. Y o u
have the right to live in the family home for at least
1 year in almost all States. Thereafter, your right to
do so depends on the homestead law and the value of
the home.

What rights do you have in the final settlement
your husband*8 estate?


I f t h e r e is n o w i l l , then in both the communityproperty and common-law States, the wife has a right
to a share in her husband's separate property. The
size of the share depends on whether there are also
surviving children, grandchildren, or in some States,
parents and other relatives.

Statistics show t h a t , o n the average, w o m e n l i v e 7 years l o n g e r
t h a n m e n a n d are 3 years y o u n g e r t h a n t h e i r husbands at m a r r i a g e . A w i f e m a y , t h e r e f o r e , expect t o l i v e 1 0 years a f t e r h e r
h u s b a n d dies.
Property rights and f a m i l y support after the death of the husband
are, t h e r e f o r e , i m p o r t a n t questions f o r w o m e n .

E i t h e r spouse m a y m a k e a w i l l . In the communityproperty States, he or she may usually dispose of his
half of the community property. I n both the community-property and the common-law States, either
spouse may dispose of his separate property by will
allowing, however, in most States, for the right of the
other spouse to reject the will and claim the minimum
share which the law says he or she is entitled to receive.


Does your husband^s death affect money or
erty held in your separate name?


No. That is yours and is not affected by your husband's


How can you and your husband take
action during
your lifetimes
to protect
other''s interests after death?
The title in which property is held directly affects the
right of the surviving spouse to inherit it after the other
spouse's death. Depending on your circumstances and
what kind of property is involved, there are some
arrangements that may be better for you than others.
Keep this in mind and get legal advice when you purchase real or other property.
W^hat about the support
husband's death?

of the children



I t becomes your responsibility. Some States by statute
require allowances to be paid out of the estate for the
Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis

support of minor children. I f there is no will, the court
w i l l consider the child's welfare in settling the estate.
I f you or your husband makes a will, neither of you is
required, except in Louisiana, to leave any property to
your child. I n most States, though, the court may appoint a representative to act for a minor child. Acting
through this representative, the minor child who is not
provided fcr in a will may challenge the will on the
grounds of fraud, undue influence, or lack of the
parent's capacity to make the will, if the circumstances
warrant. If such a claim is proved, the court may award
a share of the estate to the child.

by divorce

lo luX^qUt lOJ
iOvowoH .

m ^jd


Statistics o n divorces i n the U n i t e d States a r e somewhat i n f l a t e d ,
since they i n c l u d e t h e n o t i n c o n s i d e r a b l e n u m b e r o f persons whose
second a n d t h i r d m a r r i a g e s also e n d i n d i v o r c e . M a n y couples w h o
are p e r m a n e n t l y separated d o n o t get a f o r m a l d i v o r c e . W h e n e v e r
a m a r r i a g e f a i l s , questions o f p r o p e r t y r i g h t s a n d s u p p o r t are v e r y
i m p o r t a n t . H e r e a r e some guidelines t o h e l p y o u .

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I mi xmn ;>!iw
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If your marriage breaks up, ivhat is the best way
to handle the questions about the children, support, and property that will arise?
Y o u and your husband each should have your own
lawyer. If you do not have one, consult the Legal A i d
Society or the local Bar Association. W i t h the help of
your own lawyer, you should try to reach an agreement
with your husband about the children, support, and
property. I n most States such an agreement, if it is
fair and just, w i l l be accepted by courts and is binding.
I f you cannot reach an agreement with your husband,
then the following questions and answers apply.


If you are separated but not divorced from your
husband and he does not support you, what can
you do?
Y o u may start a legal action for support. Even if your
husband leaves your home State, you can sue him there,
and other States will enforce the order of your home
State's courts. Ask a lawyer or your Legal A i d Society
what public or private agency you should consult to
enforce this right.
If it becomes necessary to divorce your
ivill he be required to pay you alimony?
I t depends on the circumstances. A l l but 2 States
permit the court, in its discretion, to award the wife
alimony on final divorce. Eleven States also permit
the court to award a husband alimony. In making its
decision, the court will review the situation in the particular case.

Who will be required

to support



The husband's primary responsibility for support of
his children is not ended by divorce. However, the
wife may be required to assume certain responsibilities,
depending on her means and ability to do so.
If you are legally separated or divorced, do you
have as much to say about bringing up the chiU
dren as your husband?
Unless you have in some way shown yourself to be an
unfit mother, most States will give you the right to have
the children live with you and be brought up by you.
The courts consider the best interests of the child, and
this usually—particularly in the case of young children
—means that the children live with their mother. Of
course, unless there is some valid reason to the contrary, the father generally has the right to be consulted

on all important questions involving the children, and
the court usually grants him the right to visit with them
and to have them stay with him from time to time.

In divorce,

how is your family



In the common-law States, the court tends to divide
the joint property equally and to allow each to keep his
or her separate property, In some few States, the person who is legally at fault in a divorce action may lose
valuable property rights.
In the community-property States, the property is
usually divided in the same way. However, in 2 of the
8 community-property States, each party is entitled,
under the law, to an exact half of the community
property irrespective of cause of divorce.




For a report concerning the law of your State, write to the Women's
Bureau, U.S. Department of Labor, Washington, D.C., 20210. When
you have a personal problem, talk to a private attorney or to your local
Legal A i d Society. Y o u will find the number of the Society in your
telephone book.
U S GOVERNMENT PRINTING OFFICE : 1985 0 - 7 8 0 - 2 5 0

P r e p a r e d for the
U . S . D e p a r t m e n t of L a b o r
W o m e n ' s Bureau
by H a r r i e t F. P i l p e l
and Minna Post Peyser