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Marriage, civil union, and divorce

The following highlights are based on marriages and civil unions registered in New Zealand and divorces granted in New Zealand:

  • There were 21,628 marriages registered in New Zealand during the December 2009 year.
  • The 2009 figure is 20 percent lower than the peak of 27,199 registered marriages in 1971.
  • The general marriage rate was 13.2 marriages per 1,000 not-married population aged 16 years and over in 2009, compared with 16.1 per 1,000 a decade earlier in 1999.
  • The median ages of men and women marrying for the first time in 2009 were 29.8 and 28.1 years, respectively.
  • Just under one-third (6,787) of all marriages registered in 2009 were remarriages of one or both partners.
  • January, February, and March continue to be the most popular months in which people marry – 41 percent of marriages were celebrated in the first three months of 2009.
  • There were 8,737 orders for dissolution of marriage granted in New Zealand during the December 2009 year.
  • The divorce rate in 2009 was 10.2 divorces per 1,000 estimated existing marriages.
  • Half the marriages dissolved in 2009 had lasted 13.3 years or longer, compared with the median duration of 12.8 years for marriages dissolved in 1999.
  • Less than half (43 percent) of all marriages dissolved in 2009 involved people with children aged under 17 years.
  • Analysis of divorce statistics by year of marriage shows that about one-third of New Zealanders who married in 1984 had divorced before their silver wedding anniversary (25 years).

Figure 3

 Figure 3, Marriage and divorce rates.

Marriages

There were 21,628 marriages registered in New Zealand during the December 2009 year, down 320 or 1 percent from 21,948 in 2008. Over the last decade, there has been an average of 21,000 marriages per year. This compares with an average of 24,800 during the period 1970–79. The 2009 figure is 20 percent lower than the peak of 27,199 registered marriages in 1971.

The general marriage rate (number of marriages per 1,000 not-married population aged 16 years and over) was 13.2 per 1,000 in 2009, lower than the rate of 13.7 per 1,000 in 2008. The rate has declined in the last decade from 16.1 per 1,000 in 1999, and is currently less than one-third of the peak of 45.5 per 1,000 recorded in 1971. Many factors have contributed to the fall in the marriage rate, including the growth in de facto unions, a general trend towards delayed marriage, and increasing numbers of New Zealanders remaining single.

Age at marriage

New Zealanders are marrying later than in the past. In 2009, a total of 586 teenage girls (under 20 years) married, compared with 8,717 in 1971. Teenagers comprised 32 percent of all brides in 1971, but only 3 percent in 2009. Among partnered women aged 15–19 years, nine out of 10 were living in a de facto union at the time of the 2006 Census.

The median age (half are younger, and half older, than this age) of men who married for the first time in 2009 was 29.8 years. This is about seven years older than the median age of those who married for the first time in 1971. The median age of women who married for the first time has risen by a similar margin, from 20.8 years in 1971 to 28.1 years in 2009. Women still tend to marry men older than themselves, but the gap between their median ages at first marriage has narrowed. In 1971, the gap was 2.1 years, but by 2009 it had narrowed to 1.7 years.

Among all marriages (first marriages and remarriages), the median age at marriage has been rising steadily since the early-1970s. The median age at marriage reached historic lows of 23.5 years for men and 21.2 years for women in 1971, before rising to 32.2 years for men and 30.1 years for women in 2009. These median ages have been relatively constant since 2004.

Remarriages

The number of New Zealand resident marriages where one or both partners had previously been married was 6,787 in 2009, down 5 percent from 2008. The proportion of all marriages that were remarriages in 2009 was 31 percent. In 1971, just 16 percent of marriages (4,385) involved the remarriage of one or both partners. By 1982, this had increased to 34 percent. Since then the proportion of remarriages has remained roughly around one-third, but has been decreasing slightly in the last decade.

Eighty-nine percent of those remarrying in 2009 were previously divorced, up from 67 percent in 1971. This rise can be partly attributed to the increase in the number of people who are divorced. In 1971, only 4 percent of not-married people were divorced; in 2006, the corresponding figure was 16 percent (based on census data). Of all the New Zealand residents who married in 2009, 21 percent of men and 20 percent of women were previously divorced. About half the divorced people who remarry marry another divorced person.

De facto unions

A growing proportion of New Zealanders, like their counterparts in Australia, North America, and Europe, live together without legally formalising their union. The five-yearly Census of Population and Dwellings is the primary source of information on de facto unions. Marriage and civil union statistics provide information on legally registered unions only. In 1996, about one in four men and women aged 15–44 years who were in partnerships were not legally married. By 2006, this figure had increased to around two in five.

Civil unions

The Civil Union Act 2004 came into force on 26 April 2005, and the first ceremonies were celebrated on 29 April 2005. This Act introduced a new form of legal relationship. Two people aged 18 years and over, whether of opposite or the same sex, can enter into a civil union provided they are not currently married to, or in a civil union with, someone else. People aged 16 and 17 years must have their guardian’s consent to enter a civil union. A couple who are currently married can transfer their relationship to a civil union. An opposite-sex couple in a civil union can transfer their relationship to a marriage. As in the past, a same-sex couple cannot enter into a marriage.

In 2009, there were 312 civil unions registered to New Zealand residents. These comprised 244 same-sex unions (147 female and 97 male) and 68 opposite-sex unions.

To 31 December 2009, there have been a total of 1,578 civil unions registered to New Zealand residents. Of these, 1,253 (79 percent) were same-sex civil unions. In the same period, a further 298 civil unions were registered in New Zealand to overseas residents. Eighty-seven percent were same-sex civil unions.

Divorces

In 2009, 8,737 marriage dissolution orders were granted by the Family Court, down from the 2008 total of 9,713.

In 1981, there was a sharp increase in divorces following the passing of the Family Proceedings Act 1980. This allowed for the dissolution of marriage on the grounds of irreconcilable difference. Divorces recorded a temporary high of 12,395 in 1982. Subsequently, both the number and rate of marriage dissolutions dropped, but the trend was upward again from the late 1980s to 2004. In the last decade, there has been an average of 9,900 marriage dissolutions per year, varying from 10,609 in 2004 to 8,737 in 2009.

The divorce rate (divorces per 1,000 existing marriages) was 10.2 in 2009, lower than the rate of 11.3 in 2007 and 2008. During the early 1990s, the rate fluctuated around 12.0 per 1,000, and around 12.5 during the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Annual divorce statistics do not give a complete picture of the number of marriages ending in divorce. Analysis of divorce statistics by year of marriage shows that one-third of New Zealanders who married in 1984 had divorced before their silver wedding anniversary (25 years). For those married in 1974 and 1969, the corresponding figures were 30 and 28 percent, respectively.

Age at divorce

The upward trend in age at divorce is continuing. This partly reflects the marked trend toward later marriages, which started in the early 1970s. The median age at divorce in 2009 was 44.9 years for men and 42.3 years for women. Divorcees in 2009 were, on average, about four years older than those whose marriages dissolved a decade earlier. The median ages in 1999 were 41.2 years for men and 38.4 years for women.

More information

The following information on marriage, civil union, and divorce is available on the Statistics NZ website:

Time series data is available from the Infoshare database. Marriage, civil union, and divorce data is available from two subject groups in the Population category:

  • Marriages, Civil Unions, and Divorces – VSM
  • Marriage and Divorce Rates – DMR.

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