Published: February 8, 2019

Almost 10 years since equitable property division divorce laws were universally extended to unmarried Australian couples, their behaviour is more closely mirroring that of couples who are married.

A new Life Course Centre Working Paper examines the effects of the consistent extension of Australian family law to unmarried couples, focusing on how being subject to equitable property division laws has affected their behaviour. Since the 1970s, marriage rates have declined throughout the developed world and unmarried cohabitation has become increasingly important. However, before 2009, laws determining post-separation financial settlements for unmarried Australian couples varied between states and territories, ranging from marriage-equivalence to far more restrictive provisions. In 2008, the provisions of the Commonwealth Family Law Act 1975 were extended to unmarried couples, harmonising the legal regime across the country with effect from 1 March 2009.

‘The Consequences of Extending Equitable Property Division Divorce Laws to Cohabitants’ study is authored by Abraham Chigavazira, Tim Robinson and Anna Zhu of the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research at the University of Melbourne, and Hayley Fisher of the School of Economics at the University of Sydney. They find that couples are more likely to make relationship-specific investments after being exposed to laws enabling the equitable redistribution of property in the event of relationship breakdown. In affected couples, they find men increase their employment, women increase time spent on housework, couples have more children, and are more likely to become home owners. When examining self-reported life satisfaction, the authors find similar effects for men and women, with an increase in financial satisfaction offset by a reduction in partner satisfaction.

“These results demonstrate the causal effect of property division laws on relationship-specific investments and demonstrate that legal approaches aimed at sharing the financial burden of relationship breakdown can have important incentive effects for existing couples,” the Working Paper concludes. “This means that a potentially unintended consequence of these laws is that they make unmarried couples behave more like married couples.”

You can read the full paper here.