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Do Unilateral Divorce Laws Raise Divorce Rates

More than 40 years ago a change in divorce law made it easier to get a divorce. Unilateral divorce laws made it possible for a married person to get a divorce without permission from their partner.

Some Background

Previous divorce laws, known as fault-based divorces, required that a couple give a legal reason for the divorce. This could include adultery, impotence, mental illness, a felony conviction or even drug abuse. Today, couples that file for a fault-based divorce usually cannot agree on how to divide assets, who gets child custody or how much support to provide.

Divorce laws in the United States started changing in 1969. In that year, California divorce laws replaced fault provisions with irreconcilable differences as a reason for divorce. After California implemented this change, almost every state in the United States throughout the 1970s established a similar reform, which is that a married person can unilaterally divorce their partner.

Unilateral divorce laws fall under the umbrella of no-fault divorces. A person can obtain a no-fault divorce without having to blame a spouse for the marriage's failure. Instead a couple can claim irreconcilable differences. In addition, only one person has to want the divorce. The other spouse does not have to agree to get the divorce. The only requirements: the couple has to be legally separated (in some states) and legal documents must be properly filed.

As a result, unilateral divorce changed the dynamics of marriage because an unhappy spouse had easier access to divorce. It also became easier for a person to remarry.

The Impact of Unilateral Divorce Laws

In one report, economists at the Wharton School analyzed if unilateral divorce laws raised divorce rates. They found that divorce increased for 10 years after the adoption of unilateral divorce laws. After that decade, divorce rates went back to normal or even decreased.

More interesting is the positive effects these laws have had on women. Analysts at the Wharton school discovered that after unilateral divorce laws were implemented in most states, there was a decrease in family distress. In the paper, the authors Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers analyzed how suicide rates, domestic violence and murder rates were impacted by nationwide reforms that helped establish unilateral divorce laws. They found that fewer wives were murdered by their husbands. There also have been lower rates of female suicide and domestic violence for both women and men. In fact, the female suicide rate dropped about 20 percent in the states that adopted unilateral divorce laws.

Overall these authors believe that domestic violence decreased under unilateral divorce laws because a person who threatens to leave, can actually leave.