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Bargaining in the Shadow of the Law: Divorce Laws and Family Distress

Over the past thirty years changes in divorce law have significantly increased access to divorce. The different timing of divorce law reform across states provides a useful quasi-experiment with which to examine the effects of this change. We analyze state panel data to estimate changes in suicide, domestic violence, and spousal murder rates arising from the change in divorce law. Suicide rates are used as a quantifiable measure of wellbeing, albeit one that focuses on the extreme lower tail of the distribution. We find a large, statistically significant, and econometrically robust decline in the number of women committing suicide following the introduction of unilateral divorce. No significant effect is found for men. Domestic violence is analyzed using data on both family conflict resolution and intimate homicide rates. The results indicate a large decline in domestic violence for both men and women in states that adopted unilateral divorce. We find suggestive evidence that unilateral divorce led to a decline in females murdered by their partners, while the data revealed no discernible effects for men murdered. In sum, we find strong evidence that legal institutions have profound real effects on outcomes within families. This project has drawn on the advice of many generous friends and colleagues, including Olivier Blanchard, Margaret Brinig, David Cutler, Tom Dee, David Ellwood, Leora Friedberg, Ed Glaeser, Claudia Goldin, Caroline Minter Hoxby, Sandy Jencks, Alan Krueger, Steve Levitt, Jeff Miron, Katherine Newman, Robert Putnam, David Weiman, Julie Wilson and seminar participants at Harvard, the MacArthur Network on Inequality and Social Interactions, Stanford, Michigan, Princeton, LSE, Berkeley, Columbia, Yale, Melbourne and the Society of Labor Economists. Special thanks goes to Larry Katz for his guidance throughout the project. We have also benefited from the excellent research assistance of Eric Klotch, Amalia Miller and Jason Grissom.

Betsey Stevenson
Justin Wolfers
Publication Date
December, 2003