Divorces in Australia
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The crude divorce rate (divorces per 1,000 Australian residents) has been trending down since the 1990s. The lowest rate over the last half century was 1.9, recorded in 2016, 2019 and 2020.
Figure 1 shows the changes in the crude divorce rate over a longer time period. After very low rates in the first half of the twentieth century, the crude divorce rate rose in the 1960s and 1970s. It peaked at 4.6 per 1,000 resident population after the introduction of the Family Law Act 1975 (Cth) that came into operation in January 1976 and allowed no-fault divorce. As some long-term separations were formalised and some divorces that had been filed in the previous years were brought forward, this contributed to the steep rise of divorce in 1976.
The total number of divorces granted in 2020 was 49,510, which was slightly higher than the 48,482 divorces granted in 2019 but similar to the number in 2018 (49,674).
Although the COVID-19 pandemic led to wedding cancellations and a decline in the marriage rate in 2020, impacts of the pandemic on divorce rates may take time to manifest fully. This is because divorces are typically after a period of separation with a legislative requirement for 12 months of separation to be established before a divorce can be granted – see below for data on this.
Figure 1: Number of divorces and crude divorce rate, 1901–2020
Note: Crude divorce rate: Number of divorces per 1,000 of estimated resident population at June for each reference year.
Sources: Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), (various years), Marriages and Divorces Australia; ABS, (various years), Divorces Australia (Catalogue No. 3307.0, 3307.0.55.001)
At what age are couples divorcing?
Figure 2 shows the median age of men and women at divorce. The median age rose from the early 1980s, reflecting that people were marrying later (see fact sheet on Marriages).
Figure 2: Median age of men and women at divorce, 1971–2020
Sources: ABS, (various years), Marriages and Divorces Australia; ABS, (various years), Divorces Australia (Catalogue No. 3307.0, 3307.0.55.001).
In 2020 the median age at divorce was 45.6 for males and 42.8 for females, and it was slightly higher in 2018 and 2019 (45.9 for males and 43.1 for females).
Duration of marriage to divorce
Figure 3 shows the distribution of how long, in years, men and women had been married before they separated and before the final granting of the divorce.
The largest proportion of couples separating and then divorcing were married for nine years or less. In 2020, 56% of separations and 41% of divorces were couples in this category. This showed little change from 2019.
However, the proportion of divorces among couples who had been married for 20 years and longer has been increasing in recent decades. In 1980 and 1990, 20% of divorces were couples who had been married for 20 years. This had increased to 28% in 2010 and 27% in 2020.
Figure 3: Duration of marriage to separation/divorce, selected years
Sources: ABS, (various years), Marriages and Divorces Australia
The median duration of marriage to divorce for divorcing couples over the last decade was between 12 and 12.3 years. The median duration of marriage to final separation was 8.3 to 8.7 years. In other words, it took three to four years from separation for divorcing couples to finalise their divorce.
What about the children?
The proportion of divorces involving children under 18 years has fallen since the 1970s, from 68% in 1975 to 47% in 2014. It has remained at around this percentage in recent years, shifting slightly higher, to 49%, in 2020. The general declining trend is partly due to the rise in divorces of long-term marriages where children have grown up. An overall decline in the fertility rate and rise in childlessness may also contribute to the fall in the proportion of divorces involving children. The apparent increase in 2020 was consistent with the downward movements in the median age at divorce in the last two years. Whether this change was a short-term fluctuation or the start of a reversing trend will not be known until sometime in the future.
It is also important to note that divorce statistics do not include separations of cohabiting couples with or without children. Research suggests that cohabiting couples with children were more likely than married couples with children to separate (Qu & Weston, 2012).
Figure 4: Proportion of divorces involving children aged under 18 years
Sources: ABS, (various years), Marriages and Divorces Australia; ABS, (various years), Divorces Australia (Catalogue No. 3307.0, 3307.0.55.001)
Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). (various years). Divorces Australia (Catalogue No. 3307.0, 3307.0.55.001). Canberra: ABS.
Australian Bureau of Statistics. (various years). Marriages and Divorces Australia. Canberra: ABS.
Qu, L., & Weston, R. (2012). Parental social marital status and children’s wellbeing. (Occasional Paper No. 46). Canberra: Australian Government, Department of Social Services.