An economic analysis of child custody decisions

Stuart Lee Rosenberg, Fordham University


This study develops a model of the decision process that takes place during marital dissolution with regard to child custody. The model is based on the relative level of altruism and self-interest in the bargaining between the divorcing spouses. This is a three-person model because it analyzes the utility of each of the parents and also the children involved in the decision. Inclusion of the children in the model is critical to the analysis, because the assumption when courts decide custody is that self-interest plays no role in the decision, and as a result, the outcome is intended to maximize the utility of all three parties. With the vast majority of divorce settlements being privately contracted between the spouses before ever getting to court, there exists a greater risk that all three parties will not have their utility maximized, since children generally have no input in the decision process. If the parents are altruistic in their negotiations and the child custody outcome is the same as what the court would have reached, then the decision is Pareto optimal. The model was empirically tested using a database of cases from the State of Wisconsin. This was accomplished in a two-step process. First, the legal custody outcomes in the cases were regressed on a number of independent variables in a binary logistic regression that identified whether custody was awarded to the mother or not to the mother. The results indicated that variables that deal with the labor force participation, educational attainment, and age of the mother, in addition to the length of the marriage, were all significant in predicting the probability of the child custody award. Second, a proxy variable was created by assigning weights to these variables for their relative levels of altruism and, when this was combined with the unweighted variables from the baseline regression, it was also found to be significant. We may conclude, therefore, that behavioral variables can be utilized similar to economic variables to increase our level of understanding in connection with child custody decisions.

Subject Area

Economics|Economic theory

Recommended Citation

Rosenberg, Stuart Lee, "An economic analysis of child custody decisions" (2003). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3077258.