No-Fault Divorce and the Compression of Marriage Ages

By Allen, Douglas W.; Pendakur, Krishna et al. | Economic Inquiry, July 2006 | Go to article overview
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No-Fault Divorce and the Compression of Marriage Ages


Allen, Douglas W., Pendakur, Krishna, Suen, Wing, Economic Inquiry


I. INTRODUCTION

The no-fault divorce revolution that took place in the United States over the past three decades provides an opportunity to test economic models of marital behavior. To date, most research on no-fault laws has focused on the effect it had on the divorce rate. Although there is still some contention over this outcome, most agree that the change in law did contribute to a rise in the divorce rate. (1) However, no-fault divorce laws should affect marriage behavior beyond the incentive to divorce. For example, easier divorce should have an impact on incentives for marital search and therefore on the age at which individuals get married. (2)

People value marriage. By this, we mean that people value a broad spectrum of marriage features, including its nature as a promise, its long-term and permanent commitment to children and other people, and its connection with personal happiness. However, not all people value marriage identically. A person's valuation of marriage will affect, even determine their tolerance for a mismatched partner and therefore will condition their marital search behavior. Because everyone is different to some extent in terms of the value they place on marriage, any movement toward easy divorce will have different individual effects. For individuals who value marriage and its permanence greatly, easy divorce makes marriage less permanent, and thus makes marital search more protracted. On the other hand, for individuals who value marriage and its permanence less, an easy exit option makes marriage more attractive and marital search easier and quicker.

Given an individual's preferences, therefore, the divorce law will condition their search behavior and marriage age. Under a fault divorce regime, those who value marriage greatly will marry young because the difficulty in divorcing protects their interests and expands the set of acceptable matches. When the law switches to no-fault divorce they must search harder and longer to ensure a more compatible spouse--in effect, search substitutes for the prior legal restrictions on divorce. Thus, these individuals experience an increase in their marriage age after the switch to no-fault.

The opposite is the case for those who value marriage less. Under a fault law, these people searched longer because they were more concerned about mistakes in matching. With a switch to no-fault divorce, these individuals risk being less selective in the choice of spouse because a bad choice can be offset by a relatively easy divorce. The willingness to be less selective means these people have a reduction in their marriage age after the change in the law.

Given the divorce law, differences in marriage preferences condition individual search and therefore the distribution of marriage ages. Under fault divorce, those who value marriage greatly marry younger and those who value marriage less marry older. This, when combined with the changes in search behavior already mentioned, means that those who would have married older marry a little sooner with the introduction of no-fault divorce, and those who would have married younger marry a little later with the introduction of no-fault divorce. The result is that with the change in divorce law there is a compression in the spread of marriage ages.

In contrast, simply looking at the mean age at marriage prior to and after the adoption of no-fault divorce might show a relatively small effect because the different types of people will tend to offset each other. Therefore, a small change in the mean age at marriage might mask large offsetting changes at the individual level. The objective of this article is to investigate the possibility of large microlevel changes in the age at marriage of individuals by looking at what happens to the spread of marriage ages as divorce laws change.

Our main prediction, that the spread of the marriage age distribution should decline with the introduction of no-fault divorce, is broadly corroborated by the data.

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