I attended a social gathering in Denmark hosted by a successful businessman with two teenage daughters. “Their mom didn’t want custody,” he explained, “so I’ve had them since the youngest was four years old”. The mother had initiated the divorce, but had not sought any contact with the kids other than an optional twice/month (every other weekend) visit. “It isn’t the life that I expected to live, but it is a good life.” The Americans at the party were shocked by this. What about the maternal instinct? Was it different in Denmark than in the U.S.? “Most middle class parents who divorce simply split the children 50-50,” explained a Dane. “Children aren’t cash cows in Denmark, except for lower class people with six children, for whom state subsidies and child support from the other parent can be a significant source of income. The previous government tried to limit this by paying only for the first two children. But they watched Muslim women in black burkas rioting across the bridge in Sweden [youtube] so the new government restored the benefits for an unlimited number of children.” Child support payments in Denmark can continue until a child turns 24 (if the kid is still in school, which of course he or she is likely to be in Europe, the original home of infinite adolescence). Our host’s income was easily high enough that in Massachusetts he would have been tapped by a divorce lawsuit plaintiff for $50,000 tax-free dollars per year in child support (roughly $1 million over 20 years; see worksheet). Could it really be the case that children who supposedly cost $1 million to rear in Massachusetts would yield only minimal child support in Denmark, where the cost of almost everything is far higher?
One of the nice things about Denmark is that it is small enough to support a lot of informal social links. Very quickly I was able to get the name of one of Denmark’s top divorce litigators, Sandra Moll, and she agreed to be interviewed. Ms. Moll had graduated from University of Milan in 1981 and from University of Copenhagen in 1990. She was licensed in both Italy and Denmark and specialized in divorce litigation and property law.
First we discussed what a divorce is in Denmark. In the U.S., a marriage starts with a simple administrative proceeding at a city hall (the marriage license application) and ends, in many states, in a standard civil lawsuit with a plaintiff and defendant (just as if two corporations had a dispute about a contract). Not so in Denmark. “You must start in an administrative proceeding,” explained Ms. Moll. “You go to the Statsforvaltningen and fill out some forms. The couple is then contacted to come in for a mediation session. People who don’t have enough money to have a lawyer will get one from the state. So the administration tries to get them to agree in order to save the government money. If the administrator can get the couple to agree, they sign some papers and are divorced within 6-12 months after the first papers were filed. Unfortunately there is some fine print on the form that says ‘valid only in Scandinavia,’ which creates a lot of problems when one person is living in a foreign country and wants to get remarried. Ultimately the couple may need to go to court to get something that is valid in a foreign country.”
What if the couple doesn’t agree? “Then the administration refers the case to a judge and the trial will be about three months later. Either party has the right to be separated even if the spouse disagrees. After six months of living apart, either party has the right to ask for a divorce because of the separation. That right becomes absolute after a year of separation.”
I asked how long the process would take under the assumption that the parties could not agree on anything. So the court would have to decide on custody, child support, division of property, and alimony. “If everything goes smoothly, it could be done in one year. The trial is just 1-2 hours and everything is decided on the basis of written reports rather than witnesses. For custody issues there will be a report from a psychologist who has spent a few hours with the child and each parent. There is a separate court for handling division of property. A party is not entitled to alimony in any marriage shorter than five years unless he or she needs to complete an educational program. Even if a party wasn’t working during the marriage, that is not relevant for determining alimony. If a person is able to work, he or she is expected to work rather than collect alimony.”
Is there an appeals process? “The first trial is in front of a single judge. There is a right to appeal to a three-judge panel, which will re-try all of the issues of both fact and law.” [U.S. comparison: most states provide divorce lawsuit defendants a trial with a single judge, whose decisions regarding facts cannot be appealed.]
In a society where Americans think that men and women have reached a much higher level of equality than in the U.S., what happens with custody? “There is no presumption of 50/50 custody, though that is what a lot of middle class parents will agree on. If the parents are unmarried, first of all, the single mother automatically gets custody. For married couples traditionally it is the mother who has been taking care of the children and spending more time with the children. Very few fathers take paternity leave though it is available to them. Partly this is because mothers do not allow the fathers to take it and partly because the fathers don’t want to. A custody dispute will be decided by the court based on the psychologist’s report, which is seriously flawed due to the limited time that the psychologist spends with the parents and children. Courts are also starting to take the childrens’ preferences into account when children are as young as 6 or 7. That has its own problems because a parent can bribe a child.”
What’s at stake financially with custody? Suppose that the non-custodial parent earns $500,000 per year working in finance. How much can the custodial parent collect? “The basic amount is just over 1000 kroner per month [about $180]. Depending on the non-custodial parent’s income and the number of kids, this can be multiplied or supplemented. the highest number that I’ve ever seen is 3X that basic amount in a case where the father was a banker. It is all worked out by the Statsforvaltningen based on a table, which you can find on their Web site.” [link in English; Danish version with more detail] So the absolute maximum that a person could collect in child support is about $8000 per year? “Yes,” replied Ms. Moll.
What if the parents who wins the kids has a high income? Can a person who makes $1 million per year collect an additional $8000 per year in child support payments? “Yes. The income of the custodial parent is not part of any of the calculations.”
How do people game the system? “It is mostly people with lower incomes who try to get extra money. Single parents get more money from the state for each child and therefore it is common for people to pretend not to be married to a second spouse. Mothers will accuse the father of being a child molester in order to get custody so that they can then collect both the state subsidies for single parents and child support from the father.” What if the father doesn’t have a job? “The state will pay on behalf of the father if the father cannot pay. The state pays for most of the consequences of failed marriages.”
[A Dane wrote to explain "In the Muslim communities there's a thing called a 'father hotel'. It's a one room apartment allegedly housing 18 men, divorced from their wives. In reality the men are living with their wives and kids enjoying the single mother benefits in spades. Visit http://denkorteavis.dk/2012/vi-bliver-snydt-sa-vandet-driver/ and ask Google to translate it. Divorce is a sound business decision for poor people with lots of kids."]
How much of a family’s wealth/the children’s inheritance is spent on litigation? “My fee is 2600 kroner per hour [about $465]. A normal divorce that goes to the administration and then straight to court will cost each party about 15,000 kroner [$2675]. If there are complicated international issues or unusual delays it could be 50,000 kroner [about $8900].”
Circling back to this month’s weblog theme of why Danes score higher on happiness surveys than do their wealthier American counterparts… For people who entered a marriage for the standard reasons of love, forming a life partnership, collaborating on rearing children, etc. a divorce is not going to be a happy event. Yet compared to divorced Americans that I’ve talked to, divorced Danes seem to have suffered much less trauma. The custodial parents had the self-respect that comes from supporting themselves through work rather than living off an ex-partner for decades. The custodial parents did not keep going back to court to try to get additional or extended child support or alimony payments. The non-custodial parents made payments that they generally considered fair and that did not amount to an additional income tax discouraging them from advancing their careers. Danish children from middle class families are much more seldom the subject of custody battles, are much more likely to benefit from substantial involvement by both parents (e.g., in a 50/50 time split), and their parents are substantially wealthier than divorced Americans who have gone through litigation (since what stops a lot of divorce lawsuits is that the couple runs out of assets to pay the lawyers). Even in the event of a complete lack of agreement on every issue, everyone involved is much more likely to be able to move on with their lives. To the extent that happiness surveys include divorced people, I would expect that Danish results would get a lift compared to American ones due to the fact that so much less money is at stake in a middle class divorce, which has the effect of greatly reducing the intensity of the fighting. The result is that both the time and cost of a divorce are lower.
The main flaw with the Danish system seems to be that wealth and income are transferred from those who behave with traditional middle class responsibility and respectability to those who do not [Danes complain about this, but the overall amount seems to be negligible compared to the amount that divorcing American families transfer to attorneys and other workers in the litigated divorce industry]. A couple who has put in the work necessary to stay married for 30 years and rear two children in a three-bedroom Copenhagen apartment will pay taxes to support single parent supplements [roughly $3,500 per year per child, but married couples also get supplements for having kids] to never-married and divorced parents. The married couple’s taxes will, in the event that a non-custodial parent can’t pay the roughly $2200/year minimum child support, be used to pay child support to a single parent. On the third hand, this is the same issue with every aspect of any Welfare State. If you take cash from workers and give it to people for doing something other than work, the result is a reduction in the number of hours that a group of people will work.