3310.0 - Marriages and Divorces, Australia, 2015  
ARCHIVED ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 30/11/2016   
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Key characteristics of marriage

Changes in the key characteristics of Marriage in Australia have occurred at a reasonably slow pace over a long period of time. Over a period of 20 years, Australians have increasingly opted for civil rather than religious celebrants, with civil ceremonies almost doubling, while the number of religious ceremonies have almost halved.

Australians have also left it longer before getting married. The (median) age at which people first marry has increased over the past 20 years, with the age at first marriage increasing from 27.3 to 30.1 for males and from 25.3 to 28.5 for females. Between 2006 and 2010 it appeared that increases in age at first marriage had ceased, but from 2010 onwards, it has once again begun to increase.

Most Australians also choose to cohabit before marriage, and more are choosing to do so over time. While the proportion cohabiting before marriage 20 years ago was just under 70%, it is now over 80%.

Decreases in the marriage rate

While the characteristics of marriage slowly change, the number of marriages has remained quite stable. Increases in the population has led to a decrease in the marriage rate from 6.1 marriages per 1,000 people in 1995, to 5.2 in 2014 and 4.8 in 2015. Through the period from 2001 to 2012, the marriage rate was quite stable, but in the three year period from 2013 to 2015 the rate has once again begun to decline.

1.1 Crude marriage rates, Australia, 1995–2015
Line graph: 1.1 Crude marriage rates, Australia, 1995–2015

Despite the slow decrease in the marriage rate, the 2015 rate appears lower than expected. Investigations have indicated that there are two key factors which may have contributed to this result. One, which could be considered a data anomaly, is the higher than usual number of lagged registrations in the 2015 reference period. The other is the emergence of Relationship Registers in many states and territories. These registers now provide an alternative to marriage, and this option is increasingly being chosen by couples in Australia seeking to legalise their relationship.

The remainder of this article focuses on these two issues and their contribution to changes in the marriage rate over time.

Relationship Registers

There has been for some time an alternative to marriage in most states and territories where a relationship register of some kind is offered and maintained. Currently, South Australia, Western Australia and Northern Territory are the only states and territories without a relationship register. Registers are available to adults who are in a relationship as a couple, regardless of sex. A registered relationship is not only a legal proof of a relationship but it may also make it easier to prove the relationship when required for tax, superannuation and government payments as well as proving next-of-kin status to funeral directors and in medical emergencies.

Relationships which are recorded in these registers are not included in marriage statistics. However, the state and territory Registries of Birth, Deaths and Marriages have very kindly provided the ABS with counts from these registers to provide a more holistic picture of how relationships are legalised. The registers are relatively new, and at this stage the number of relationships registered through them are growing on an annual basis. In 2012, there were 5,379 registered relationships compared with 9,344 in 2015, an increase of 73.7%

1.2 Count of relationships recorded on relationship registers
(NSW, Vic.(a), Qld, Tas., ACT) 2012–2015
Column graph: 1.2 Count of relationships recorded on relationship registers
(a) The numbers of Relationship Registrations in Victoria (which are produced on a financial year basis) are estimated e.g. 2015 was produced by adding half of 2014/15 to half 2015/16.

When considering both registered relationships and marriages together, there has been an increased in both the number and proportion of registered relationships, from 5.0% in 2012 to 9.2% in 2015 (noting this is only for jurisdictions with an active relationship register). However, it is important to note that while the increasing numbers of registered relationships may have contributed to the declining crude marriage rate in recent years, not all couples choosing to register their relationships would have done so in preference to marrying.

1.3 Relationships: Religious marriages, Civil marriages and Registered relationships
(NSW, Vic.(a), Qld, Tas., ACT) 2012–2015

Column graph: 1.3 Relationships: Religious marriages, Civil marriages and Registered relationships
(a) The numbers of Relationship Registrations in Victoria (which are produced on a financial year basis) are estimated e.g. 2015 was produced by adding half of 2014/15 to half 2015/16.
(b) Includes undefined marriages, which account for fewer than 100 marriages per year.

Administrative data lags

There are often delays between the celebration of a marriage, the time it's registered and when it is processed and notified to the ABS. That means that not all marriages that occur in a particular year are included in statistics for that same year. Lags in administrative data exist in all reference periods, but they generally have a limited impact on annual marriage rates because similar numbers of registrations lag each year. However, volatility in registration lags can impact on annual counts.

Over the past 2-3 years, many of the jurisdictional Registries of Births, Deaths and Marriages have been undertaking large scale digitisation and system redevelopment works. Changes such as these can impact on the ability of Registries to process registrations at particular times. In 2015, the impact of changes being undertaken with the Victorian Registry are particularly noticeable. As a result of these changes, a larger than expected number of 2015 marriage registrations have lagged into counts for the following year. This has contributed to the low count of marriages in 2015 and will likely lead to a higher than usual count in 2016. For this reason, the ABS would recommend caution when comparing the 2015 count and rate with other years.

Statistics on registrations of births, deaths and marriages are able to be provided in a timely manner because they are provided for a 'reference period' rather than on the year that the event or registration occurred. It is recognised that 'year of occurrence' would provide a more stable and accurate depiction of the number of registrations over time, but because of processing delays, year of occurrence data may take 1-2 years to be accurate or complete. The ABS can provide year of occurrence data retrospectively, and this will provide a more accurate picture of changes in the marriage rate over time.