Do Gender-Neutral Custody Laws Increase the Likelihood of Divorce?

Yang Chen, Ohio State University

Studies have attributed the rise in the divorce rates in the U.S. to states’ adoption of unilateral divorce laws. Few, however, have looked into another legal change that also affected people’s divorce decisions: the transition from maternal preference to gender-neutral presumption in child custody assignment. This study provides the first comprehensive coding of the timing of states’ adoption of gender-neutral custody laws in the 1970s and the 1980s. I show that states’ transitions in divorce law and custody law are uncorrelated in time. Using the Census data since 1960, I assess the implications for adults who live in a state with gender-neutral custody presumption. I find that exposure to gender-neutral custody laws raises the likelihood of divorce, even after controlling for unilateral divorce law. Failure to include custody laws in divorce analysis would overestimate the impact of unilateral divorce law by more than 10%.

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Presented in Session 215: Divorce: Causes and Consequences