Divorce laws in Europe have been subject to crucial revisions in past decades. From a theoretical point of view, the introduction of unilateral divorce in the 1970s and early 1980s is of particular interest. Under unilateral divorce, a spouse seeking divorce is no longer reliant on the other’s agreement. This reform offers the opportunity to investigate the applicability of Coase’s theorem in the context of family decision making, where it has often been applied.
The project, conducted in cooperation with Gerrit Bauer (LMU Munich) and Steffen Reinhold (University of Mannheim), deals with a variety of questions that have not as yet been resolved in the previous research on potential effects of unilateral divorce legislation on familial processes. For example: Has the introduction of unilateral divorce laws had sustained effects on divorce rates in Europe? If so, how are these effects manifested, and in what ways have the new laws impacted trends in marriage patterns, women’s employment and fertility? Has the introduction of unilateral divorce laws had lasting effects on child development? And are these effects attributable to a higher probability of parental divorce, or rather the result of altered parental negotiating positions in intact marriages?
Alongside aggregate data, the data collected in the retrospective survey SHARELIFE are used to answer these questions. Analyses reveal that the introduction of unilateral divorce laws has led to a sustained and marked increase in divorce rates and risks in Europe. Direct effects are partially obscured by the decline in marriage rates and, respectively, the rise in age at first marriage, indicating a more selective choice of spouses following the new legislation. Looking at heterogeneous effects for couples with and without children, it is primarily parents that are affected by an increased divorce risk. As for children who have grown up under unilateral divorce laws, adverse effects are reflected in lower levels of education and worse health in advanced age. These effects cannot be accounted for completely by the increased likelihood of experiencing parental divorce but are in part attributable to shifts in relative bargaining power of spouses induced by unilateral divorce law.
This research was supported by the the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). It has led to publications in the Journal of Marriage and Family, Journal of Population Economics, and Demography.