Poster Paper: Is “Best Interest of the Child” Best for Every Child? the Long-Term Implications of Gender-Neutral Custody Laws

Saturday, November 5, 2016
Columbia Ballroom (Washington Hilton)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Yang Chen, IMPAQ International, LLC and Trevon Logan, The Ohio State University

We examine the educational impact of gender-neutral custody laws on child outcomes. Between the 1970s and 1990s, state custody laws moved from maternal preference to the “best interests of the child” doctrine which gives fathers and mothers equal treatment in child custody cases, a change that is independent of divorce law reforms. We construct the first systematic coding of the transitions in child custody law, which enables the empirical analysis of custody law changes.

While standard household bargaining models predict that changes in custody laws give fathers greater bargaining power in marriages, the net effect of the custody law reform on all children is unknown. We exploit the exogenous variation across states in the timing of custody law changes to estimate the long-term implications of exposure to a gender-neutral custody law regime.

We find that childhood exposure to gender-neutral custody laws has a negative and significant effect on educational attainment, both the likelihood of completion of schooling milestones and years of education. For example, a man exposed to the new custody law as a child is less likely to graduate from high school by, on average, 2.04 percentage points. Results are similar for women. Moreover, the negative effects are independent of the effects of childhood exposure to unilateral divorce laws.