Submitted by Attorney Lori A. Curtis
A couple of months ago I went to Boston with my husband. Besides finding culinary treasures in the North End and eating pastries from Mike’s, I loved exploring the history and culture. This last trip, I found myself wandering through one of the graveyards and happened upon the gravesite of Elizabeth Murray Campbell Smith Inman. She was born in Scotland in 1726 and moved to the New World when she was only 12.
Elizabeth eventually became an entrepreneur, opening her own shop in Boston to sell the latest fashions from London. She built her business and tutored other women in sewing, shop keeping, reading and arithmetic.
In 1755, Elizabeth married a ship’s captain, Thomas Campbell. Under the law of the time, married women were “protected” by coverture. Essentially, single women had the right to own property and make contracts in their own name while a married woman did not have rights distinct from her husband. The married couple was considered to be one person and the husband had the legal right and obligation to make all the decisions on behalf of the community.
Thomas died of the measles when Elizabeth was only 32. Elizabeth got remarried but negotiated a prenuptial agreement which allowed her to not only keep all of her own money she earned as a shopkeeper, but also entitled her to one-third of her husband’s estate if he died before she did. When her second husband died, Elizabeth was left a wealthy woman.
Elizabeth married a third time, again negotiating a favorable prenuptial agreement which allowed her to keep her own money. Her husband Ralph decided he wanted to leave the New World and return to England once the Revolution began. Ralph was arrested before he could leave Boston and his property was seized by the rebel forces in 1776.
The war also depleted Elizabeth’s finances, however before she died, she made a new will that bequeathed much of what was left of her estate to her family and friends. She died on May 25, 1785. Her husband, Ralph, received relatively little of her fortune, and much like disappointed heirs today, disputed her will for a number of years.
The laws regarding married women owning property have changed since that time, but there are just as many, if not more, potential landmines in getting married, starting a business, drafting a will, and in general, protecting your assets. Each individual has different circumstances and different concerns that should be discussed with an attorney to make sure you know the different options available to you.
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