Custody, Access and Child Support: Findings from The National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth


Mom and Dad Were Married: Will They Divorce?

Divorce rates have consistently gone up in Canada since the adoption of the Divorce Act in 1968 and the 1985 amendments that liberalized access to divorce for Canadian couples. There have been some changes in the raw numbers since the early 1990s: the total number of divorces reached a plateau before starting to decrease slightly in the second half of the decade. Yet the divorce rate, which is the proportion of marriages that end in divorce, has never declined. It is the number of marriages that has gone down. Recent estimates show that if trends observed continue, 40 percent of all marriages in Canada could end in divorce, and that percentage could conceivably reach 50 percent.

However, are the changes we observed in the way people are entering into unions indicative of changes in the way they choose to end them? Might we not expect that increasing proportions of legally married couples wishing to end their marriages would separate without ever legalizing their break-up through divorce?

To address this question, it is useful to examine the survival curves presented in Figure 8. These curves show, for given regions, the percentage of children from broken marriages whose parents had not divorced, according to the time elapsed since separation. Obviously, the results presented in Figure 8 are linked to the grounds on which one can obtain a divorce and regional differences in the divorce process itself, which can affect the time it takes to get a divorce.

Figure 8: Percentage of Children from Broken Marriages Who Have Not Yet Witnessed Their Parents' Divorce, According to Time Elapsed Since Separation--NLSCY 1994-1995 (Life Table Estimates)

Figure 8: Percentage of Children from Broken Marriages Who Have Not Yet Witnessed Their Parents' Divorce, According to Time Elapsed Since Separation--NLSCY 1994-1995 (Life Table Estimates)

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As Figure 8 shows, in Canada almost half (47 percent) of the children from broken marriages had not seen their parents divorce after three years of separation and this percentage was still 28 percent after five years of separation. One may well ask whether the couples who have not divorced after five years will ever obtain a divorce.

Apart from Quebec, the proportion of children in different regions of the country whose parents had not yet divorced after five years did not vary greatly from the national average. Quebec seems to be a province in which everything tends to happen quickly, including divorce after separation. Figure 8 shows that in Quebec, only 74 percent (as compared to 94 percent in Ontario) of children from broken marriages had not seen their parents divorce after one year and this percentage drops to 21 percent after five years.

A survival regression applied to these data confirms that in Quebec there is a greater tendency for separated parents to divorce early and this result is not linked to the greater likelihood for parents to live together before marrying (Table 2). Controlling for prior cohabitation, the age of the child at the time of separation and the period in which the separation occurred, children in Quebec are more likely than children in Ontario or in the Atlantic provinces to see their separated parents obtain a divorce. The propensity of separated parents to divorce does not appear to be linked to the age of the child at the time of the separation. Parents who separated in the 1990s appear to be less likely to divorce than parents who separated between 1983 and 1989. Couples who started by living together rather than marrying are also somewhat less likely to divorce.

Table 2: Impact of Given Variables on the Probability of Separated Parents Getting a Divorce--NLSCY, Cycle 1, 1994-1995
(Cox Proportional Hazard Coefficients)
Variables 1 Coefficients 2
Region (Quebec) 1.000
Atlantic Provinces 0.693 **
Ontario 0.591 ***
Prairies 0.839
British Columbia 0.838
Age of child at separation (6-11 years) 1.000
0-5 years 0.933
Year of separation (1983-1989) 1.000
1990-1995 0.698 ***
Type of broken marriage (marriage, no common-law union before) 1.000
Marriage, common-law union before 0.860 *

Some explanation for the patterns in Quebec may be found in the emphasis in that province on beginning divorce or separation proceedings as quickly as possible after the couple has, in fact, separated. Unlike in Ontario, for example, where the date on which the couple stopped living together is the date used to determine the value of the family patrimony, section 417 of the Quebec Civil Code states that the net value of the family patrimony is determined on the date proceedings are begun. Therefore, clients are always advised to initiate proceedings as quickly as possible to protect themselves, and attempt to prevent the other spouse from disposing of assets. Moreover, if they have grounds other than the one-year separation, couples in Quebec are often encouraged to proceed directly to a divorce without going through the separation procedure in order to reduce legal fees. Since both types of proceedings cost the same, it can amount to considerable savings to avoid the separation stage.

Apart from these regional explanations for the patterns in the timing of divorce, we may still ask whether the tendency to separate but not divorce is related to more widely held liberal attitudes towards conjugal life in general. It may also very well be that the difficulty former spouses encounter in settling issues surrounding custody and support affects whether or not they will obtain an order from the court to deal with these issues. We will attempt to answer this question by examining the relationship between the degree of tension reported by parents over visiting rights and living arrangements, and the existence of a custody order.