Free to Leave? A Welfare Analysis of Divorce Regimes

Raquel Fernández, Joyce Cheng Wong

NBER Working Paper No. 20251
Issued in June 2014
NBER Program(s):   EFG   POL

During the 1970s the US underwent an important change in its divorce laws, switching from mutual consent to a unilateral divorce regime. Who benefitted and who lost from this change? To answer this question we develop a dynamic life-cycle model in which agents make consumption, saving, labor force participation (LFP), and marriage and divorce decisions subject to several shocks and given a particular divorce regime. We calibrate the model using statistics relevant to the life-cycle of the 1940 cohort. Conditioning solely on gender, our ex ante welfare analysis finds that women would fare better under mutual consent whereas men would prefer a unilateral system. Once we condition not only on gender but also on initial productivity, we find that men in the top three quintiles of the initial productivity distribution are made better off by a unilateral system as are the top two quintiles of women; the rest prefer mutual consent. We also find that although the change in divorce regime had only a small effect on the LFP of married women in the 1940 cohort, these effects would be considerably larger for a cohort who lived its entire life under a unilateral divorce system.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w20251

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