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.


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.

Robert Leidich

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.


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.


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


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.


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.

Drill-Baby-Drill Drill Team

We should Divorce Marriage.

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



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.


I wonder if the lawmakers have considered the effect that No Fault Divorce has had on other states' marriage/divorce rates and one-parent/two-parent family ratios?


There is also a little thing called No Fault Alimony that some states practice. It's when the even one is found out to be the cheating/abusive/abandoning spouse, they still get entitled to alimony. It basically messes up the whole incentive-to-stay-good/stay-married system when the party breaking the contract gets to benefit the most.


@AC #5 -

Here is a chart of new marriage rates (i.e. weddings per capita) taking a nose dive right after the advent and spread of No Fault Divorce across the US:


That nose-dive chart is basically the guys boycotting the whole deal. In a loaded Casino, the only way to win is to not play.


No Fault Divorce could be a boon for people who are in verbally abusive marriages but don't have enough "evidence" to prove it when using inhuman treatment as their divorce grounds - its your word against mine sort of thing. The fact that they can use the NFD as a way to get away from the abusive spouse will not only reduce the escalation of domestic violence but provide an avenue for the victimized spouse (and in many cases the children) to start on the road to a more "normal" life.


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.

As a man, I'd like to point out that I haven't been alive for most of history.


Here's my advice to men & women & marriage:

1) Get a college education
2) Do not marry before the age of 27
3) Marry someone that shares your values whatever they may be.

Marriage rates for college grads who delay marriage are higher than any others and divorce rates much lower. And last but not least, women will stop using men for monetary gain when men stop using women for their looks. Both are shallow, shallow pots & kettles. Stop with the bias B.S. for as much of the female bias you spout, I'll counter it with male bias. Everybody grow up.


@Brooke: NY courts award custody to mothers 93% of the time. That's after men who don't care drop out or agree to whatever arrangement and their wives and wives' lawyers suggest. Is there any way to interpret that other than as anti-male bias? It's interesting to note that fathers' and children's rights advocates only ask for equal rights whereas NOW campaigns only for women's rights.


I'm not liking the NFD laws but i can do little about it...my thoughts on it are if one party wants out then they can get out with no benefit at all to themselves no matter who is the "bread winner." I think that would discourage the use of the NFD in ways that would allow a couple to become married and then divorce just for a jump in financial or social status.

Joshua Northey

Child support makes a lot of sense, but I find the whole idea of alimony a little bizarre in this day and age.


Hmm... I guess the "Defense of Marriage" folks are too busy trying to stop the insidious gay menace to worry about the last state in the country that still requires a reason to grant a divorce. Interesting, very interesting....

Incidentally, does anyone know the cause cited in Newt Gingrich's divorce(s)?


Of course divorce will go up with no-fault divorce -- as it should. It means the state can no longer force someone to stay with a spouse against his or her will.

And as others have said, why does the state have anything to say about marriage to begin with? Let's have legally registered domestic partnerships for both straight and gay couples and leave "marriage" to clergymen or clergywomen or whoever you want to perform rites to bless your private union.


Divorce is harmful to children. Overwhelmingly, the research supports this.

Children are the responsibility of their parents until the age of 18. Furthermore, children are not easily able to attend to their own needs, including securing food, protection, and shelter. In short, parents have an absolute duty to protect and raise their children, together.

Therefore, once a married couple have children, they should prove to a judge that divorce will prove beneficial to the children.

Lilith states: "wait until your 27, find a spouse with compatible views, and get a college degree." Only 1/3 of US adults have college degrees, do you have any suggestions to help them?

Many commentators brought up issues of alimony and child payments. I.E. Reduction of your children to a monetary sum. Yes, that is what your child is - an argument over money.

Final comment: if you were interested in creating a dysfunctional society, with low levels of trust, high levels of violence, and low levels of educational achievement, then destroying the institution of marriage would be a good start. No fault divorce enables this.

The past was never perfect. The future may be worse.



^"Only 1/3 of US adults have college degrees, do you have any suggestions to help them?"

I have. Don't get married and don't have children. A properly functioning society shouldn't need to continuously increase it's population in order to sustain itself. Logic should dictate the fact that families should only be built if there is sufficient surrounding infrastructure to support them...