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Divorce rates fall to 40-year low in 2014

Divorce rates have plunged to their lowest level in 40 years as couples increasingly live together without being married or choose to tie the knot later in life.

There were 111,169 divorces in England and Wales in 2014 - a fall of 3.1% compared with 2013 and a decline of more than a quarter from a recent peak in 2003.

The overall divorce rate fell to 9.3 per thousand married males and females - the lowest level for both sexes since 1974.

Nicola Haines, of the Office for National Statistics, which released the figures, said: "Compared with 2004, divorce rates in 2014 were lower for all age groups except women aged 55 and over.

"Likely factors include increased cohabiting and increasing age at first marriage.

"Previous research indicates a higher risk of divorce among those marrying at younger ages, whilst cohabitation may be reducing the number of weaker relationships progressing to marriage."

There was a sharp rise in divorce rates between the 1960s and early 1990s amid changes in attitudes to divorce.

In addition, the Divorce Reform Act 1969 took effect in 1971, making it easier for couples to divorce upon separation.

The ONS report said: "Changes in attitudes to cohabitation as an alternative to marriage or prior to marriage, particularly at younger ages, are likely to have been a factor affecting the decrease in divorce rates since 2003; levels of cohabitation increased over this period while the married population declined.

"Age at marriage is also considered to be closely linked to the risk of divorce with those marrying in their teens and early 20s being at greater risk of divorce; our marriage statistics show that the average age at marriage has increased steadily since 1970 for both men and women."

In 2013 the average age at marriage was 36.7 years for men and 34.3 years for women.

The average age at divorce for both sexes has increased every year between 1985 and 2014, rising by over eight years to 45.6 for men and 43.1 for women.

Clare Wiseman, a specialist family and divorce lawyer at Irwin Mitchell, said: "The divorce rates show that the average age of divorcees is continuing to rise partly because the attitudes of modern society towards divorce have become more relaxed in the past 10-20 years. Most divorcees are now in their 40s.

"People are recognising that they don't have to stay in unhappy relationships and the number of dating websites and groups that are aimed at older people show that it is possible to build new relationships no matter what age you divorce."

She added: "Having said that, the stats show that once a marriage lasts 20 years, there is a much greater chance the couple will stay together. The first 10 years remain the most likely time that a divorce will occur.

"Long term, the statistics show that divorce rates generally are continuing to decline, which may reflect the fact that more people are cohabiting first, which could mean their relationships are stronger when they come to get married, or they are simply choosing not to marry in the first place, particularly if one or both parties have had a previous relationship and/or are wealthy in their own right."

Sir Paul Coleridge, chairman of Marriage Foundation, said: "It really is heartening news during the season of family goodwill that the number of intact families is not declining despite the generally held myth that divorce is simply set to get worse and worse."

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