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

Betsey Stevenson
University of Michigan

Justin Wolfers
University of Michigan at Ann Arbor – Department of Economics; The Ford School of Public Policy, University of Michigan; University of Sydney Department of Economics; The Brookings Institution; Peterson Institute for International Economics; National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER); Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA); Centre for Economic Policy Research (CEPR); CESifo (Center for Economic Studies and Ifo Institute); Kiel Institute for the World Economy

December 2003

NBER Working Paper No. w10175


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.

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

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