The latest data released by the Office for National Statistics has revealed that divorce rates are at their lowest level for 40 years. The end of World War II in 1945 and the liberation of divorce law through the Divorce Reform Act of 1971 saw divorce rates sharply rise, and there has been a steady increase in divorces between 1940 and the record high year of 1993. Since then, divorce rates have been falling. In 2013, there were only 118,140 divorces, compared to 165,018 in 1993.
So what has changed?
Arguably, the most important factor influencing divorce rates has been the relaxing of social attitudes. Divorce has all but lost the social stigma it once had, and society is much more accepting of non-traditional family units, as demonstrated by the legalisation of same-sex marriage.
As divorce rates have increased over time, marriage rates have also fallen. Nowadays many people would never consider getting married until they have spent time living with their partner. Then, as time goes by, they may never get around to marrying. Indeed, many people never want to marry at all.
This has resulted in cohabitation rates reaching record levels. The Office for National Statistics announced that the numbers of cohabiting couple families have risen by 30% over the last ten years. This is the fastest growing type of family in the UK, and the trend is expected to continue into the future.
Married but Living Apart
There is also a substantial portion of couples who split up, live apart and never get divorced.
There are many reasons why this happens. A couple may realise their marriage has broken down, and one partner may move out of the house they shared. They may come to an arrangement about how to deal with the day-to-day practicalities of splitting up such as dealing with the mortgage, coming to an agreement about the care of their children and how to settle financial matters such as the mortgage or any savings they had as a couple. These issues may be resolved by an informal agreement between the couple or a legally enforceable document called a Separation Agreement (Minute of Agreement in Scotland).
Some couples may be happy with the arrangement they have with their spouse and may not see any reason to complete the administration process of divorce.
Divorce is often portrayed as such an expensive and combative exercise that it is understandable why many couples would be keen to avoid it.
However, although a married couple may live apart and have completely separate lives, the legal binds of marriage continue. If a couple do not divorce it can add complications to any future relationships they enter, and it is possible for a spouse to make a claim upon their husband or wife’s estate when they die.
Although divorce rates are falling, couples may find that it is in their interests to formally end their relationship by divorcing.
Molly McGrady is a legal writer based in Scotland writing about topics such as divorcing in Scotland.