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. 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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  2. 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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  3. 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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  4. --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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  5. 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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  6. Puma says:

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

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  7. 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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  8. 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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