Divorce Reform Hits New York

New York looks set to became the last state in the nation to allow unilateral divorce.? While the media has described this as the adoption of “no-fault” divorce, the real innovation is that New Yorkers can now obtain a divorce even against the objections of their partner.

Back in the 1960s, most states required evidence of fault as the only way out of marriage.? In reality, this meant that if both partners consented to divorce, they just made up some marital fault and lied to the judge.? The subsequent reform movement ended this charade, and led nearly every state to allow either spouse to unilaterally end the marriage.? New York was an exception.

Does this shift from mutual consent to unilateral matter?? This is a topic that we’ve both studied extensively, and we’ve found that it does, and it doesn’t.

It matters because the new law shifts bargaining power to the person who most wants out of the marriage.? Unfortunately, many people-including the president of the New York Chapter of the National Organization for Women-think that this means it benefits the “moneyed” spouse.? It doesn’t.? It benefits the spouse who wants out of the marriage the most.? That’s not always the “moneyed” spouse.? In fact, research suggests that it is more often the wife.

Our research has shown that, for some women, the shift to unilateral divorce is literally life-saving.? We find that when states pass unilateral divorce laws, domestic violence declines, as does female suicide.

“But there is no permanent effect of unilateral divorce laws on divorce rates.”

But divorce reforms don’t matter much if you are concerned about the divorce rate. Yes, the divorce rate will rise somewhat in the very short term as the speedier process clears the current backlog. But there is no permanent effect of unilateral divorce laws on divorce rates.? So we should expect New York’s divorce rates to return to their pre-reform levels after a couple of years.

It is true that women become more likely to work outside the home following the adoption of unilateral divorce laws, but this is not evidence that these laws favor the moneyed spouse.? The reason women work more is because unilateral divorce favors the person with the best options outside of the marriage.? A paying job is one thing that affects your options outside of marriage.? Equally, there are other important considerations, such as how happy you’ll be in your subsequent life, your chances of remarriage, and how much time you are likely to get to spend with your kids or grandkids.

As academics, we are often outsiders to day-to-day policy debates.? But in this case, it has been gratifying to watch the evidence we so carefully compiled used to inform the debate.? Of course, the bill still has to get through the State House and the Governor has to sign it, so the debate continues.

The Times‘s Room for Debate blog has a nice discussion of the issues, including a longer contribution by Betsey.

Addendum:?More related reading.? The always-terrific Stephanie Coontz has?an insightful op-ed in today’s?Times, and over at Salon, Jamie Kapalko provides a nice wrap-up of the relevant issues.

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  1. Christophe says:

    The true absurdity is that “the state” has a say in these things; i.e. “majority votes” deciding how people should run their personal lives.

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  2. Robert Leidich says:

    I would have thought that the spouse most wanting out of the marriage would have weakened bargaining power since the other spouse can use this as leverage.

    Much like the usual business deal–the more one party wants something, the more she is willing to concede on points in negotiation.

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  3. PaulD says:

    I think men do tend to be more romantic and sentimental about marriage than women. For example, a man will rarely settle for an unattractive woman just because she has a good job.

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  4. AC says:

    No-fault divorce + female-biased family courts makes divorce a boon for women.

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  5. AC says:

    It would be interesting to look at the effect of No-Fault Divorce not just on *divorce* rates, but on *marriage* rates. If NFD makes divorce more attractive for women, and female-biased family courts make divorce costly for men, that would decrease the attractiveness of marriage for men.

    This has an interesting parallel to union behavior: exalt the position of folks in the union (married women) while reducing employment because hiring is more expensive.

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  6. Brooke says:

    It’s a little frightening that every time this topic comes up, it brings out the “justice system is biased against men” crowd, typically followed by the “why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?” crowd.

    As a woman, I find it more than a little disgusting that men want to play the victims in a system and a society that has favored them and their interests for most of history.

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    • Robert says:

      >> “It’s a little frightening that every time this topic comes up…”
      >> “As a woman, I find it more than a little disgusting that men want to play the victims.”

      Brooke, the people that are experiencing the bias are not responsible for history nor do I believe that you personally have experienced “most of history.” I’m sorry you’re frightened and disgusted by a group of people that are trying to correct a broken system.

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  7. Drill-Baby-Drill Drill Team says:

    We should Divorce Marriage.

    Marriage is the most dysfunctional, despairing and destructive social instution outside of prisons.


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  8. Chris says:

    As New Yorker I have to express my extreme frustration that the Legislature is even talking about this — or anything else — when our budget is 8+ weeks late. As a once-disenfranchised father, I’d rather they consider adopting presumptive joint custody laws (as have most other states) than make divorce easier.

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