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Did Unilateral Divorce Laws Raise Divorce Rates? A Reconciliation and New Results

Aug 2003
Working Paper
02-044
By  Justin Wolfers
Application of the Coase Theorem to marital bargaining suggests that shifting from a consent divorce regime to no-fault unilateral divorce laws should not affect divorce rates. Each iteration of the empirical literature examining the evolution of divorce rates across US states has yielded different conclusions about the effects of divorce law liberalization. I show that these results reflect a failure to jointly consider both the political endogeneity of these divorce laws and the dynamic response of divorce rates to a shock to the political regime. Taking explicit account of the dynamic response of divorce rates to the policy shock, I find that liberalized divorce laws caused a discernible rise in divorce rates for about a decade, but that this increase was substantially reversed over the next decade. That said, this increase explains very little of the rise in the divorce rate over the past half century. Both administrative data on the flow of new divorces, and measures of the stock of divorcees from the census support this conclusion. These results are suggestive of spouses bargaining within marriage, with an eye to their partner’s divorce threat.