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July 30, 2018

Should divorce be cheap and easy?

Opinion image

Many countries have made divorce easier over the past few decades, dropping fault requirements in favor of mutual agreement, or even allowing unilateral divorce (i.e. not requiring the consent of both spouses). Separation requirements have also been reduced or dropped. Is this trend a good idea? What are the short- and long-term consequences for couples and for society as a whole?

A number of studies have analyzed the social impact of recent reforms in divorce legislation across countries. The results suggest that the introduction of unilateral divorce raised divorce rates, at least temporarily, and that unilateral divorce reforms probably had some negative effects for couples who were “trapped” in the transition (married under the previous divorce law regime and “surprised” by the reforms). However, no-fault and unilateral divorce reforms cannot explain the large increases in divorce rates in many countries in the second half of the 20th century. 

In addition, a number of studies have found that legal, easy, unilateral divorce may have positive economic and social consequences, including increasing saving rates among married individuals, and reducing the level of intrahousehold conflict and domestic violence (even in couples that remain intact). Moreover, in the long term, unilateral divorce seems to have led to better (if fewer) marriages, probably with lower divorce rates, suggesting that the overall long-term effects of the reforms are likely to be welfare-enhancing. Also, recent reforms favoring joint child custody seem to have encouraged marriage and fertility.

Taken together, the available evidence offers little hope that reinstating fault-based or mutual-agreement divorce laws, or more generally making divorce harder, would dramatically reverse the so-called “breakdown of the traditional family.” 

However, it is worth noting that unilateral divorce combined with equal division of property, as well as reforms that favor joint custody of children, may depress female employment, at least for some groups of women, which some countries may want to avoid. Some recent findings suggest, though, that unilateral divorce may increase fairness and lead to fewer distortions of labor supply if combined with separate property or prenuptial agreements.

Policymakers should also keep in mind the potential effects of changes in divorce laws on children, both in the short and long term. Introducing unilateral divorce can improve outcomes for children born to couples who were married after the reforms were introduced, while it may harm children born shortly before the reforms. Although the channels are still not well understood, this negative effect may be the consequence, at least in part, of the temporary increase in divorce rates following reforms that make divorce easier, and increases in poverty among divorced mothers. Thus, policies that facilitate income and other forms of support for children of parents who divorce soon after reforms in the divorce law may help alleviate such effects.

© Libertad Gonzalez

Read Libertad Gonzalez's article Should divorce be easier or harder?

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