NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Does Unilateral Divorce Harm Children?

November 5, 2001

Historically, states only provided for divorce on grounds such as infidelity and physical abuse, and when it was mutually agreed upon by both partners. Now most U.S. states allow for unilateral no-fault divorce, whereby one spouse can obtain a divorce without the consent of his or her partner, solely on the grounds of spousal incompatibility.

Are these new laws making divorce too easy? A number of states are considering changing their divorce laws, primarily motivated by the perceived negative impact of divorce on children.

In his study, "Is Making Divorce Easier Bad for Children? The Long Run Implications of Unilateral Divorce," Jonathan Gruber determined that children who grew up in the "easier-divorce" states are in fact worse off in a number of ways.

  • They are less well educated, with a particularly large increase in their odds of being a high school dropout or graduate as opposed to going on to attend or complete college.
  • They also live in families with lower incomes -- primarily because these families involve earlier marriage, having more children, and an increased tendency for the women to not work for pay but rather to be home with their children.
  • They are more likely to marry early, but these early marriages are also more likely to end in separation.

Gruber also determined that since the 1960s and early 1970s, when "no fault divorces" became available, unilateral divorce regulations have significantly increased the odds of an adult being divorced (by 11.6 percent) and of a child living with a divorce parent: children were 14.5 percent more likely than under the old laws to be living with a divorced mother and 11.1 percent more likely to be living with a divorced father.

Source: David R. Francis, "Is Making Divorce Easier Bad for Children?" NBER Digest, February 2001; based on Jonathan Gruber, "Is Making Divorce Easier Bad for Children? The Long Run Implications of Unilateral Divorce," NBER Working Paper No. 7968, October 2000, National Bureau of Economic Research.

For NBER Digest

For Working Paper


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