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Feature Article


The Demographics of Divorce - United States and Missouri

Robert Hughes, Jr., Ph.D., Former Professor, Department of Human Development & Family Studies, College of Human Environmental Sciences, University of Missouri-Columbia


The demographics of divorce are routinely reported wrong, calculated wrong or misinterpreted. Here are some explanations of the different ways that divorce rates are reported and what each of these rates means.

For every two marriages that occurred in the 1990s, there was one divorce. This does not mean that the divorce rate is 50%. Although, it is correct that in the United States during most of the 1990s, there were about two marriages for every divorce in a single year. But this does not mean that the divorce rate is 50% because the people getting married in a single year are not the same ones getting divorced. This is a very common error and it results from the fact that Vital Statistics reports the number of marriages and divorces for each year. It is easy to think that some type of divorce rate can be calculated from these numbers, but it can't.

In 2003 there were 3.8 divorces for every 1000 people in the U.S. The "crude" divorce rate is calculated on the basis of the number of divorces per 1000 population. This provides a better measure of the divorce rate because this allows us to compare the rate over time and across the country by taking into account the size of the population (number of people). However, this number has a problem in that it uses the entire population (including children), some of which cannot get divorced, for its calculation. Also, since different communities and at different times in history there may be more or less children in the population this number may misrepresent the divorce rate.

In 2001, about 20% of adults over age 15 had ever divorced. The number of adults who have ever been married and later divorced is the preferred indicator of the divorce rate. The rate varies for different age groups. Among adults who were 50-59 years old in 2001, 39% of women and 41% of men (these percentages are not statistically different) had ever divorced. This group had the highest divorce rate in 2001.

In Missouri there were 3.9 divorces for every 1,000 people in 2003. The divorce rate in Missouri peaked in 1979 and 1981 at 5.7 divorces per 1000 people and has been going down slightly for the past two decades. Despite this decline there were still 22,166 divorces in the year 2003.

In Missouri in 2003, 11,081 children were affected by the divorce of their parents. About one-half (51%) of all divorces in Missouri involve children. Here is more information about helping children cope with their parents' divorce.

In Missouri in 2003 the most common form of custody was sole custody for mothers. In about 35% of divorces in Missouri in 2003 joint legal custody was granted. The most common custody arrangement was for mothers to be awarded sole custody-about 55% and fathers were awarded custody in 10% of the cases. There are a few cases (2%) in which grandparents or other relatives obtain custody. In Missouri parents are required to develop a parenting plan to help them talk about the care of their children. Here are some things to keep in mind when developing a parenting plan.

In Missouri in 2003, about 6% of fathers were awarded child support in the divorce process. Mothers were awarded child support in 69% of the cases and no support was awarded in 23% of the cases. Here is the office of Child Support Enforcement.

Husbands and wives between the ages of 45-54 had the highest number of divorces in Missouri in 2003. The age group of 45-54 years of age had the highest number of divorces-4,490 for men and 3,793 for women (remember couples who get married do not have to be the same age). There were 519 men and 267 women over the age of 65 years of age that got divorced in 2000 in Missouri.

Kreider, R. M. (2005). Number, Timing, and Duration of Marriages and Divorces: 2001, Tables 3, 9. Current Population Reports, P70-97. Washington, D. C.: U.S. Census Bureau. Available at:

Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services. 2003. Missouri Vital Statistics 2003, Graph G, Tables 39, 40, 41. Available at:

National Center for Health Statistics. (2004). Births, Marriages, Divorces, and Deaths: Provisional Data for November 2003. National Vital Statistics Report, 52 (20), Table A. (PHS) 2004-1120. Available at:



Last Updated 05/11/2009


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