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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.