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The Economics of Marriage and Divorce

I am a former Vietnam-era AF air navigator with degrees in History and Economics. Areas of interest include aviation and military history.

The Economics of Marriage and Divorce

The Economics of Marriage and Divorce

Marrying for Money

Throughout history both love and money have been the major reasons for marriage. I remember reading somewhere a reference to George Washington telling his step-son that love is fine but more is needed for a marriage.

Washington himself is a perfect example of the pragmatic approach to marriage, having courted and married the richest widow in Virginia.

Advice From an Old Dentist

I still remember as a lad of 5 accompanying my Mother downtown on the bus for her semi-annual dentist appointment with the dentist who had cared for her family's dental needs since she was a young child.

Following her appointment, the old doctor came out to the waiting room where I was waiting and, when she introduced me to him, he bent down, shook my hand and, looking me straight in the eye, said in a very serious voice Remember son, it is just as easy to marry a rich one as a poor one.

Of course I, like George Washington's step-son, did not heed the advice and, not having rich parents like Washington's step-son, have had to spend my life working.

But I have no regrets and, if I were to live my life over again, would again choose my darling Bella over all the fortunes in the world without a second thought (she must feel the same way because when I proposed to her I told her I was broke and she still said yes).

Money, Love and Marriage

Throughout history, love and money have been the two main forces behind marriage and, somewhat amazingly, regardless of which one has been the main force behind a person's marriage the other generally assumes equal importance following the marriage. While George Washington married for money, he was a good and loving husband and father to his two step-children (George Washington fathered no children with his wife, Martha).

Since ancient times, economics has been as much a part of marriage as romance and sex. History records how countless numbers of men and women have advanced themselves financially and socially by seeking out and marrying someone much wealthier than themselves. Sometimes it is the individual alone who decides to seek wealth through marriage while other times it is family members who seek to advance the fortunes of the family by marrying off a younger member to a wealthy mate.

A major theme of the recent book and movie The Other Boleyn Girl is that of the sixteenth century English father and uncle seeking to advance the family fortune by strategically marrying off the children of Thomas Boleyn.

In the case of Anne Boleyn (who was the second of six wives that the English King Henry VIII ended up marrying and discarding during his reign), the result was a tragedy both financially and romantically with Anne losing her head and the family its fortune.

Another Anne, Anna Nichole Smith, succeeded in the economic realm enjoying great financial success through marriages but found only tragedy when it came to romance and her life in general.

However, some, like America's first President, George Washington, and England's greatest nineteenth-century Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, found both the financial and social success they sought from their marriages to wealthy women, as well as happiness and love in their marriages. Disraeli is often quoted as saying that he had married for money to which his wife quickly added "...but if you had to do it again, you would do it for love." and his marriage is often cited as an example of a very successful marriage of love.

On a more serious note, the family has always been the basic unit of society and the household, which throughout history has usually been the nuclear family, has been, and still is, the basic economic unit of society.

Whether one marries for love or money, economics becomes a major factor following the marriage.

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A basic concept of economics is the idea of division of labor in which work is divided among people rather than being done by one alone. In most cases when two or more people are involved in the production process the output of their joint efforts is greater than the total output of each working alone. As those of us who have had the dual experience of trying to raise a family, manage a home and earn a living both as a single parent and as a married couple will attest - the task is much easier when sharing it with a spouse than going it alone as a single parent.

Cost Per Person for Married People Less Than if They Were Single

However, the economic benefits of marriage go beyond the division of labor.

Married couples share a single dwelling with a single casualty insurance policy insuring their home and possessions. In the case of two single people, two homes and two insurance policies are needed and this could result in the total cost for the two individuals living separately each paying as much as the couple pay together. Or, in the case of two income households the two together can afford more expensive living quarters than they could afford individually.

A family plan will insure two or more cars at a much lower price than will separate insurance policies on each car. Things like food can often be purchased in larger units to accommodate two or more people (including children) at a lower per unit cost than when purchased individually.

Even traveling can be less expensive as two people can travel in one car for considerably less than two people driving separate cars and a room for two at a hotel costs less than two separate rooms.

Cost of Divorce for Families

When people divorce and break up the marriage, all of these savings are lost which results in an adverse economic impact on the couple and their children.

The first economic impact is the cost of the divorce itself. Since marriage in civil law is a contract, there is a legal process involved in dissolving the contract.

In an amicable divorce with each partner agreeing to a division of the marriage assets and child custody issues, the legal cost of dissolving the marriage can be relatively small consisting only of court and document filing fees. However, if there are any disputes over property or children, attorneys and other professionals will need to be called in and the legal costs will skyrocket.

There are also costs involved with the division of assets as not all assets can be easily divided which means that for certain assets, such as a hours or car, one partner will get the asset and then have to come up with cash to buy out the partner's interest.

An alternative is to sell all joint assets and divide the cash proceeds. However, divorces generally are not postponed until market conditions are favorable. In fact in reality the opposite is often true as economic downturns are often the final straw that breaks a weak marriage which means that assets are often sold for less than they would fetch in a good market. This loss on the sale of assets results in another economic loss to the divorcing couple.

Once the costs of the divorce process itself are taken care of, other factors come into play.

Where once the couple occupied one dwelling together, they now need separate dwellings which means that the cost of housing can nearly double as each now must purchase separately what they formerly shared.

Houses have to be furnished (furniture, dishes, linens, cleaning supplies, gardening supplies, tools, etc.), which again results in each paying separate, full prices for what they used to pay once and share.

Homeowners insurance, heat and air conditioning, utilities, etc. are now needed for two dwellings, rather than one dwelling which is a further ongoing expense of divorce.

Car insurance must now be purchased separately by each and separate medical insurance will have to be purchased by each which again has the effect of nearly doubling the living costs of the two people. With separate dwellings comes separate real-estate taxes (if one or both rent this is included in the rent) will have to be paid on the two dwellings rather than one dwelling.

When Children are Involved the Cost to the Family Is Even Greater

If the divorcing couple has young children there are additional costs which can be substantial.

If one spouse simply abandons the family and disappears, the other spouse gets full custody but also has to assume the full cost of raising the children. The court may require the absent former spouse to pay child support, but it is generally up to the spouse with custody to track down the former spouse and provide that information to the court before the civil authorities will enforce the ruling. The cost of finding and collecting the money generally falls on the spouse seeking the support.

If both spouses are present and one gets full custody the other will often be given visitation rights (as well as usually having to pay child support).

If the couple live in the same city the financial cost is small as it usually simply amounts to paying for a little extra gasoline by one or both to pick-up and drop off the children for the visitation rights.

However, if they live in different states this can result in flying the children back and forth which is considerably more expensive. In hostile divorces where one or both spouses continue their fighting which led to the divorce, visitation rights often become another area of dispute which frequently end up in court with both having to incur attorney and other fees. There are also the non-cash expenses of juggling time and plans to accommodate the visitation rights.

In the case of joint custody, which is becoming more common, there is considerably more traveling between homes and more complex scheduling which, if the one or both of the couples is hostile, can result in more legal infighting. Also, joint custody generally requires that, in order to keep custody rights, each spouse must continue to live in the area which often results limiting promotion opportunities that require moving or accepting a better position with an employer in another city or state. Having to turn down these opportunities can result in a substantial reduction in the individuals career and lifetime income.

Cost of Divorce on the Community and Society

As to the second part of the question, concerning the economic effect of divorce on society and the economy as a whole, divorce does have negative economic effects for society, with the first one being the courts.

Since marriage is a legal civil contract, the only way to dissolve them is through court proceedings which means that all divorces, both amicable and messy, require some court time and resources which adds to the already heavy load of work clogging our court system. While some of the costs of the court system are offset by fees paid by participants coming before the courts, society (read taxpayers) still has to foot a large part of the bill for the court system and when that system is forced to increase in size due to increasing business the taxpayers have to pay for that as well.

Litigants in other areas, besides marriage, are also burdened by the increased divorce proceedings as the additional load on the courts causes longer waits for everyone. Since in business time is money these delays add to the costs of business litigation which, in turn, is passed on to consumers.

There are also costs to the social service system, since the after divorce income and living expenses are not always equal leaving one, or occasionally both, spouses below the official poverty line which makes them eligible for things like food stamps, subsidized housing, subsidized medical care and possible cash welfare payments. The cost of these programs are borne by the taxpayers as are the costs of administering the programs.

Finally, there is also the negative impact of divorce on children which often requires additional counseling programs in schools as well as additional disciplinary problems by children who act out their problems in that arena.

Numerous studies have shown that boys growing up in fatherless households (which is often the case in divorce) tend to get into trouble with the law more frequently than their peers in homes with a father present, which leads to additional costs to society both in the direct law enforcement areas where taxpayers have to pay for additional police, more court time and personnel, additional probation personnel and services and additional prison personnel and facilities as well as the cost of the physical damage resulting from their crimes.

Studies have also shown that girls growing up in fatherless homes or homes where the father has abandoned them often have difficulty as adults in their relationships with men which leads to more divorces in the future.

Economic Progress Can Lead to More Divorce

Ironically, while marriage continues to be a very efficient economic arrangement and divorce continues to involve costs and financial strain, in the economically advanced nations of today's world, economics can also be said to play a role in encouraging divorce. While the economic benefits of a stable marriage remain as important as ever, rising prosperity and rapid economic growth have provided people with more alternatives.

In the past, most people could not afford the cost of divorcing and going it alone, especially when children were involved, and this tended to keep families together while making divorce rare.

Today's relative economic affluence makes it possible for many people to divorce with both spouses being able to survive and even prosper as separate households. Today's economic growth and prosperity has also meant that we, as a society, can afford to subsidize, through both our mandatory tax dollars and voluntary charitable giving, those who have trouble making it alone.

While few, if any, people elect to divorce and live on welfare or private charity, the existence of this social safety net makes it safer, economically, to leave a marriage and go it alone knowing that help is available if they fail to make it alone economically.

Despite the many tales from the past of couples living unhappy lives because they were locked in unhappy marriages that they could not get out of, more often than not the economic and legal constraints that forced people to stay together caused many to face and resolve their issues rather than running away. While none of us seek obstacles and difficulties in life, it is the facing and surmounting of these obstacles that ultimately leads to happy lives.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2008 Chuck Nugent


Chuck Nugent (author) from Tucson, Arizona on April 29, 2020:

DanielRooney1 - thank you for your comments. I totally agree with your arguments regarding the harmful effects of divorce on children. However, the focus of this Hub was on the economic aspects of both marriage and divorce. The discussion of divorce in the Hub focuses on the negative financial consequences which affect the children as well. Finally, in states like Arizona (where I live and where you appear to be located based upon the link you included in your comment) which have a "no fault" divorce law a divorce can be had for the asking by one of the parties with the other party having no say other than to try to negotiate the terms as far as child custody and division of property. Thanks again for your comments.

Festus Kumi on January 26, 2012:

Divorce is something we should all avoid. But unfortunately it has become the order of the day. Commitment to our individual responsibilities in marriage can help save marriages to some extent. discusses some ways to reduce the rate of divorce nowadays

the other one 333 on December 29, 2011:

can a person living in texas file for divorce if he was married in california, wife still lives in cali

Chuck Nugent (author) from Tucson, Arizona on October 10, 2011:

Zambian - this article was on the economic consequences of divorce. When deciding to get a divorce one should consider all factors including the economic impact (which many overlook) and then decide whether, with everything considered, it is better to proceed with the divorce or if it makes more sense to find a way to reconcile.

Zambian on October 09, 2011:

Good stuf! so does this mean divorce has nothing good in it??

break up books on June 29, 2011:

The financial implications of divorce should serve as a warning for people who jump into marriage too soon. I am a strong believer in prenups, I know it sounds unromantic and as if you do not trust the person you are marrying, but when are madly in love we do not think that things can ever turn nasty between husband and wife, especially when money is involved. If things are clear cut then everyone knows where they stand and there should be less financial costs.

legalese on June 23, 2011:

It is true that our modern economic system facilitates divorce. With the advent of the division of labor and specialized employment, the family unit is no longer necessary for financial success. Of more importance, with the wide-spread acceptance of women in the labor force, women in modern societies are self sufficient and can afford to divorce and live alone.

farahzachzia from Indonesia on May 25, 2011:

you really are good writer. I enjoyed every word your wrote from beginning of the sentence till the end without feeling boring at all. Will learn a lot from you.

Randall Kaiden from Oxnard & Santa Clarita, CA on March 31, 2011:

Excellent hub! People should also make sure to do new estate planning after a divorce.

Ikeji Chinweuba from Nigeria on March 28, 2011:

Thanks a lot for publishing this interesting article.

chukwu marycynthia on March 26, 2011:

lovely work,am impressed,though am not yet married,but with this,am learning how to build a home of PEACE.Nigerian

Lin Poa from at the beach on February 23, 2011:

Nice job Chuck. My friend's family is in a similar situation, where the money play a very big role and cause a lot of pain..

Jay Mead on December 28, 2010:

I don't think it's quite that bleak a picture for Men. Good attorneys will work toward an equitable agreement for both parties.

Marat on December 18, 2010:

All these comments on thoughtfullness, understanding and divorce -- are hilarious.

The reason divorce is so high in the United States is that one side, women, benefit from divorce actions. In American divorces, women gain custody of the children 90% of the time and acquire a significant proportion of the man's assets after ridiculously brief marriages (especially without a prenuptial agreement).

Then there is the misdated concept that men have to take care of women, even though most women are gainfully employed. Attorneys appeal to this emotion in Court which further biases court action in favor of women and against men.

Many clever attorneys make men pay for their divorce actions by appealing to the court about the "helplessness" of the women they represent - forcing men to pay for both their own legal defenses and the defenses of their ex wife. The ex wife uses the money of her ex-husband to pursue his assets. This furthers the advantage of a divorce action for women. Most women will not have to pay their attorney's fees as they mount a rigorous pursuit of their husband's assets. During all the travails they put their husbands through, they can be assured that they will secure custody of the children.

Lastly, the wise attorney will pursue an aggressive posture citing that the woman was emotionally traumatized or abused by the man. This puts the man on the defensive, increases his legal expenditures, and puts pressure on the ex-husband to settle in a manner that is far more favorable to the women.

As a side note, if the man challenges these allegations, even if they are completely false, the man will face a barrage of "independent" evaluators that are mostly women, gay women, or gay men -- that regard the average straight man in an unfavorable light. Even if the man is completely innocent, his "independent" evaluations will be so biased as to create the specter of him being an unfit parent and the "cause" for the divorce.

For men, divorce is a horrific tragedy. For women, divorce is a financial opportunity.

The clever attorney realizes this and knows that if they are representing a woman, they can relax. The woman is going to get a favorable settlement -- the question is how favorable (and how profitable for the attorney) will the divorce be.

In the United States there will either be judicial reform or revolution. After decades of men being tyrannized by family courts, I wonder how much longer will men bow to this tyranny before they revolt?

As an attorney, I hope this inequality and tyranny will last forever. I will laugh all the way to the bank.

Chuck Nugent (author) from Tucson, Arizona on November 25, 2010:

chspublish - thanks for visiting and for your comments. I agree with you that finding ways to resolve difficulties can definitely reduce the emotional strain on the couple and others involved and can also help reduce the costs (especially litigation costs if that can be avoided). However, as I pointed out in the Hub there are certain cost savings from a family having one household instead of two - things like housing, insurance, etc. all nearly double when a couple separates and sets up separate households. While two may not be able to live as cheaply as one, the cost for two living together as one household is definitely less expensive than living separately as two.

While there can be compelling reasons and emotional benefits to divorce there are some economic costs to divorce that cannot be avoided.

Again, thank you for your thoughtful comments.


chspublish from Ireland on November 16, 2010:

Chuck, thanks for a comprehensive and well-thought-out hub. How long did it take you to write it?

Just one comment, if you don't mind. I would include the beneficial effects of resolving difficulties, be it with a couple or family,through the use of mediation. It can eliminate the costs, the time and the wear and tear on everyone's nerves. It can also affect how people behave afterwards - there's a good chance that good feelings and goodwill abounds, due to the mutually satisfying nature of the process. What do you think?

drvosjeca on July 30, 2010:

It is terrible that when it comes to divorcing, person you used to love becomes a person you hate. All things are now down to money...

kartbahnfan from Dusiburg, Germany on May 24, 2010:

I know something better. Don't marry and you don't need to go through all this!

jeff on May 06, 2010:

Divorce cost too much and lawyers want you to fight over everything.

electricsky from North Georgia on March 10, 2010:

Yes after years of marriage it is costly to end it. However if both parties want out even though they are entrenched in mortgages and debt, there is nothing that can't be worked out.

Laura Deibel from Aurora, CO on March 02, 2010:

Awesome hub! Too many married people or considering to get married do not seem to notice this economic phenomina.

Laura Deibel from Aurora, CO on December 28, 2009:

Excellent hub. Yep divorce can be downright costly.

RKHenry from Neighborhood museum in Somewhere, USA on March 27, 2009:

Have you seen where that chick is trying to get some 50+ mil a MONTH from her ex? Crazy. Great hub. Glad I came across it.

Men and Divorce on March 26, 2009:

I feel that a divorce doesn't always have to be a huge financial ordeal. But it does take quite a bit of cooperation on both sides, which unfortunately can be difficult to find. Planning, planning, planning! That is essential to minimize the impacts on your wallet, your credit, and your future. Emotions that run out of control will cloud good judgement and tends to result a financial backlash.

Ashley Joy on March 20, 2009:

Divorce is expensive for both parties even in the best of economic conditions. I could not imagine what it would be like right now with the way things are.

Jyoti Kothari from Jaipur on December 21, 2008:

Thanks for publishing a hub answering my request. It unfolds some new horizon.

Jyoti kothari

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