The financial disadvantages impacting children born outside of marriage is associated with more family instability for children: a UK study has found

In recent decades, much of the globe has witnessed a retreat from marriage. This means more children are being born outside of marriage, either to single parents or cohabiting couples, in countries around the world. This social change raises a few questions:

  1. Are such children less likely to enjoy stable family lives?
  2. Is the growth of non-marital childbearing, including the growth of childbearing within a cohabiting union, associated with more family instability for children? 
  3. Are there financial disadvantages impacting children born outside of marriage?

To answer question 3, the Cohabitation-Go-Round study provides fresh evidence that financial disadvantages impacting children born outside of marriage and that cohabitation is less likely to deliver family stability for children, compared to marriage. As the American expert on family and marriage Professor Brad Wilcox said: “We know that children thrive on stable routines with stable caregivers.

For single parents disadvantage associated with lower income compared to coupled parents is a simple example. The risk is heighted because of the increase in cohabitation in general and the associated instability of these relationships. The study highlights the potential financial vulnerability to which people in longer term cohabitation may be exposed and some of the difficulties faced by parents in settling property and parenting matters.

In Australia, studies show that family instability is associated with a host of negative outcomes for children even among children in higher income households. Recent research from AIFS revealed that while mothers have increasingly moved into paid work (both full and part-time work, increasing from 43% in 1981 to 63% in 2009), the reliance on formal childcare for preschool age children has also increased (from 29% in 1987 to 45% in 2002). And the costs of childcare in Australia is one of the highest in the OECD but with one of the lowest participation rates (according to the Australian and ABC Fact checker). 

These amongst others are issues have contributed to the Family Law Amendment (De Facto Financial Matters and Other Measures) Act 2008, which came into operation on 1 March 2009 (and 1 July 2010 for South Australia) which highlight issues faced by parents in settling property. 

Under the so-called “de facto property regime” established through this legislation, cohabiting couples who meet certain criteria (e.g., they have lived together for at least two years, or have a child of the relationship) are treated in the same way as married couples. Before its passage, the new legislation’s treatment of cohabitation of at least two years in the same way as marriage sparked a great deal of controversy, highlighting the tension between respecting people’s private decisions to live together outside marriage and protecting their potential vulnerability in nationally consistent ways should the relationship break down (see Parkinson, 2008). However, little is known about cohabiting couples’ understanding of the legal consequences of their staying together for at least two years, should they have begun their relationship after the “de facto property regime” was established.

There is no doubt that financial vulnerability poses many negative impacts on families and children however unique challenges such as the cost of childcare and property settlement and parenting matters, appear to present children with more challenges than merely being reared by couples parents. 


  • DeRose, L. Lyons-Amos, M.; Wilcox, W.B.; and Huarcaya, G. 2017: The Cohabitation-Go-Round: Cohabitation and Family Stability Across the Globe, Social Trends Institute, World Family Map 2017.
  • Families then and now: 1980-2010: Alan Hayes, Ruth Weston, Lixia Qu and Matthew Gray
  • Weston, R., & Qu, L. (2013). Working out relationships (Australian Family Trends No. 3). Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.
  • Bita, Natascha 2015: Australian childcare system among world’s most expensive: OECD, The Australian, November 25, 2015.

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