The Price of Marriage

When my wife and I got married in 1966 in Massachusetts, we had to take blood tests to make sure we weren’t syphilitic. (We weren’t.)

In 1980, most states required such tests, but today only two do. Such tests essentially increase the price of getting married, since they raise the time and money price of a marriage license. A very neat new study allows one to use the differential timing of the repeal of blood-test laws to infer what the demand curve for marriage licenses looks like as the implied price decreases.

The paper shows that abolishing blood tests increased the number of marriage licenses issued by 6 percent, although half that change simply reflects people no longer crossing state lines to avoid the cost of the blood test. While no longer relevant today, one might think that raising the price of marriage licenses could have the beneficial effect of deterring spur-of-the-moment marriages. Of course, like so many restrictions, it might also have a negative unintended consequence: it might increase the number of out-of-wedlock births.


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  1. Chris says:

    Now, if only we could reduce the price of weddings. I fear that only an act of congress can pull us back from wedding events that cost more than my entire college education.

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  2. zach says:

    not to mention it would have stronger negative incentives on the poor, who are already plagued with low marriage rates.

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  3. Andreas Severinsen says:

    How is children born “out-of-wedlock” a problem? The problem is children born outside a stable relationship. And it shouldn’t have anything to do with a religious ritual. I know the marriage once were quite “holy”, but today nobody seems to care at all.

    In fact I believe that increasing the price would make the average mothers age increase (because of the decrease of spur-of-the-moment marriages), which again would increase the chance of the baby being born into a more stable relationship. Which at least I consider the most important thing of all.

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  4. James says:

    What about variation in the cost of ‘getting married’ – including the average cost of a wedding in your culture and region?

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  5. Adam S says:

    You could do a similar thing if you just increase the cost of the marriage licenses but give discounts if you fulfill a waiting requirement. So you can get a last minute license right now for lots of money, or a cheaper one if you wait. There is a discount in GA for attending pre-marital counseling which has been shown to deter some bad marriages, but the discount is so small (as little as $5 in some counties) that there is in effect no real incentive.

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  6. Peter says:

    Are out-of-wedlock births necessarily a bad thing?

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  7. MikeM says:

    The question is, are out-of-wedlock births necessarily a bad thing if these are the kids born to parents who would have been married if they could have saved a few bucks on a marriage license?

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  8. Michelle says:

    I agree that out-of-wedlock births aren’t a bad thing.

    I also think they will continue as long as women can get their hospital bills paid for if they’re single, but not if they’re married.

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  9. Gerv says:

    “How is children born “out-of-wedlock” a problem? The problem is children born outside a stable relationship. And it shouldn’t have anything to do with a religious ritual.”

    At least here in the UK, the figures don’t back you up on that one – at least, if you look at it narrativally rather than point-in-time. For a start, non-marriage relationships are more likely to break up, which means that the kids have worse average outcomes.

    Research example: “The institute cited the Millennium Cohort Study, a survey by the Institute of Education in London of nearly 20,000 children born in 2000.

    This, it said, ‘has shown that children of cohabiting couples do worse than those of married couples.’ ”,+admits+Blairite+think+tank/

    Sadly, I don’t think the full study is online.

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  10. --E says:

    It seems to me that out-of-wedlock births are possibly preferable to bad-marriage births. (I will never understand people who think that their marriage problems will be “solved” if they have a child.)

    I would be interested in a statistical comparison of how well children do when they are raised by a single parent, vs how well they do when raised in a contentious household with parents who resent one another. While it might be hard to differentiate between stable marriages and bad ones, I suggest as a comparison group children whose parents divorced when the child was between age seven and age fifteen.

    James @#4: presumably the price of the wedding is something over which the couple have control. But the absolute minimum cost will be whatever the government requires for paperwork. If the couple want to have a lavish production, that’s their own lookout. Nothing the government can do about it.

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  11. J says:

    There is no way the government could charge anything commensurate with the marriage costs we willingly take on: costs for catering, designer dresses, photographers. For most middle and upper class people, the cost of the marriage license is a mere fraction of the total cost of getting married.

    Thus, an increased cost would affect only the poor.

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  12. Justin James says:

    In SC, my marriage license cost a “whopping” $30. $30 compared to a wedding (unless you are being married by your neighbor the notary in the backyard with hot dogs on the grill and Coors Light in the cooler) is a drop in the bucket. Please.

    Anyone who lets $30 deter them from getting married is not serious enough about it to make it a good wedding anyways.


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  13. Gale Thorne says:

    I’m curious what the statistics on the relative success rates cheaper vs. more expensive marriages are? Perhaps there is some insight there on the value of something more difficult to obtain. Or perhaps not. Either way, I’d love to know.

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  14. Doctor Gonzo says:

    I do have to laugh at all of the comments about how the cost of a wedding is running out of control. Last time I checked, the size and cost of a wedding is entirely up to the participants. I got married in my mother’s townhouse, with my brother officiating, and about a dozen guests. That wasn’t too expensive!

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  15. Gerv says:

    E: unless you think that there are significantly more “bad” marriages than there are “bad” living-togethers, then assessing the quality of the relationships won’t change the balance.

    As for solving marriage problems with a child, how many women who live with their partners, searching for more intimacy and commitment, have a child in the hope that it will increase the commitment of their man? If the answer is “no idea”, then I think that’s also the answer to your speculation about people trying to fix marriages by having children.

    Are you sure you are not searching for some way to make the facts bend to fit what you would like to be true? As the abortion example in the Freakonomics book shows us, there’s facts and there’s interpretation of the facts. (Some would interpret the crime drop when abortion rates rose as being an argument for legal abortion; I interpret it as a wake-up call to those who would ban abortion that they need to develop solutions to other social problems at the same time.) Why is it a problem for you if married relationships produce better outcomes for the children?

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  16. Jake says:

    How much of the blood test avoidance was due to cost vs the hatred of needles? My wife hates having blood drawn. If blood tests had been required; I could see us getting married in a different State to avoid the actual test rather than the cost of the tests.

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  17. Heather says:

    Instead of charging people more (hence discriminating against the poor and having no effect on the upper- and middle-class folks), why not institute a mandatory 60-day waiting period after applying for a marriage license? So, once you apply, you must wait at least 60 days to marry, and you must marry within a specific number of days (say, 90 or 120). This would no doubt cut back on destination weddings, unless there was a way to get everything done online or via mail, but it might also keep people from making these rash decisions that rarely turn out well.

    There should also be a provision for mandatory pre-marital counseling for all couples under 25 or previously divorced couples. And before people start in on how it infringes on individual liberties, it’s worth noting that we all pay the price when relationships go sour in terms of clogged court systems (funded by taxpayers), increased use of resources (two households use more water and power than one), and the overall unhappy instability of society when so many families are fragmented (the negative impact on physical and emotional health that stems from divorce and personal stress).

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  18. Raj Pandravada says:

    I would say that one pays for marriage AFTER the actual nuptials, and not before.

    More seriously, I’d like to, much like some of the other comments before me, help clarify that out-of-wedlock births aren’t necessarily a bad thing. Someone can have an extremely bad childhood growing up with ‘happily married’ parents as well. What’s you point?

    Also, I’m unsure of your premise that raising the marriage license costs will result in ‘spur-of-the-moment’ marriages. You have to APPLY for a marriage license; plenty of time to reconsider any hasty decisions.

    Guess it depends on your definition of ‘spur-of-the-moment’. Which brings us neatly to Vegas…

    The marriage license fee in Vegas is $55. How much should one increase it by, before the drunk couple driving by decides to keep driving and not swing by for a drive-thru marriage? Maybe $110 or $165 will sober them up….

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  19. Raj Pandravada says:

    Also, given that you had two posts regarding marriage in the last four days, I’d say that your anniversary is either coming up, or happened during the last week.

    Many felicitations on your 43rd!

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  20. --E says:


    I am absolutely certain I am not searching for some way to make the facts bend to fit what I would like to be true. I have no horse in this race (I’m the offspring of a happy marriage). I don’t care one way or the other what the result is; I just would like to see better analysis.

    If you want to lump “unmarried couples” in with “single-parent households” and do a true contrast of married vs unmarried, that is fine with me.

    I’m concerned with isolating the effect of a bad marriage, vs no marriage at all. Odds are it’s still better (statistically; individual results of course vary) than unwed parents, but unless you can come up with a study showing that distinction, there’s no way to be certain.

    A further complication is to decide what is due to the unwed state vs other considerations. Lack of education, lack of income, lack of age, and lack of marriage have a high correlation. However, forcing all poor, uneducated teenagers to marry their baby’s father or mother doesn’t seem likely to be a panacea.

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  21. Karen says:

    Heather @17:

    In Australia there is a minimum 30 day waiting period between registering an intention to marry and actually getting married. According to our minister, this has nothing to do with deterring hasty marriages. Rather, it is so that officials can search the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages to make sure the parties aren’t either a) already married to someone else or b) brother and sister.

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  22. Puma says:

    The costs of marriage? Hmmm. This guy has an essay subtitled “The Cost of Proclaiming Your Undying Love”:

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  23. Jeff says:

    I was on a task force in Pennsylvania to look at expanding the tests in the late 1980’s. We were looking at HIV testing and scrapped it because it wasn’t clear what to do with the results. If we shared them with the Department of Health, then we would actually be discouraging marriage. As to the Syphillis tests, the results are only shared with the potential spouse – sort of truth in wedding. That made the issue easier. We couldn’t conceive of testing for HIV and then only telling the potential spouse, particularly in light of the more grim outlook for HIV back then. The concept of rolling back the Syphillis tests was not on the table.

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  24. Alice says:

    Comments like “negative unintended consequence: it might increase the number of out-of-wedlock births” really are a bit out-dated these days.

    There is no actual reason why a child born in or out of wedlock should be worse off.

    I would suggest that bad marriages followed by messy divorces are a far greater and costlier negative consequence than being born out of wedlock.

    @17 hit the nail on the head – delay the release of the marriage license for 90 days. Anyone getting married with the full-on ceremony will be planning way ahead of 90 days in advance, and anyone being spontaneous will have time to consider their spontaneity. Where’s the harm in that?

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  25. Nick Flynt says:

    I agree with many on this forum that a watiting period (90+ days) is not a bad idea. Spontaneous marriages don’t serve much purpose in my opinion. In fact, spontaneous anything when it has obvious lifetime consequences is generally not a good idea (see Tattoos). How marriage is viewed in terms of purpose is at issue here. First, it is absolutely a custom our society has placed value on for many, many generations. Marriage, whether viewed from a biblical or secular point is a lifetime commitment, and I can’t emphasize the word commitment enough. Threre are also practical reasons for marriage such as health insurance, estate planning, etc. the government has put into place in effect promoting the institution of marriage. Children born out of wedlock, planned or otherwise, do not have a direct bearing on marriage. Again I come back to that word commitment. Someone, mother or father or hopefully both, will have to raise that child. That requires an enormous commitment seperate from that of marriage.
    These seperate commitments run parallel to another and I believe feed off each other.
    As for the original question of raising marriage license rates. The filing fee for a divorce in Jefferson County, FL is over $400. This is a pretty good incentive to stay in a marriage if the only problem is your wife is a bad cook (mine’s not). In other words, I believe it should be hard to get out of a lifetime commitment. $400 is truly not outrageous considering the prevalence of $30,000 weddings these days. It should be at least as hard to enter into a lifetime commitment as it is to get out of one.

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  26. stephan says:

    marriage licenses and pricing are a ridiculous and unnecessary thing. when is the governing body(ies) going to become lean and mean and stop being involved in matters that are personal, especially religious in nature. Any parties, truly willing to marry, will pay the fee regardless, one state or another.Or, is this simply a matter of which state can make the most money?

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