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Changes and Stability in Marital Status: Evidence from Canadian Income Tax Returns


We use a 20 percent longitudinal sample of Canadian personal income tax returns to explore patterns and changes in marital status, with a focus on cohort behaviour. We define five different cohorts, each with a different starting age in 1995, and follow each over a 20-year data period. We consider and compare the changes in cohort patterns, giving special attention to the stability of married and common law unions, and for that purpose distinguishing unions with the same partner from those with a different one. Comparisons of cohort patterns show a shift toward an increased proportion reporting themselves as single or living in a common law union and a decreased proportion reporting married. The proportion married to the same partner declines, and the proportion married to a new partner increases, implying some reduction in marriage stability. Common law unions, more common at younger ages, appear unstable, but much of the apparent instability is removed when common law unions that would transition to married unions with the same partner are taken into account; common law as a premarital first stage appears to be increasingly common. At older ages the death of a partner is the major terminating factor at the end of a marriage, most prominently among males: widowhood (death of a partner) accounts for a much larger fraction of marriage terminations for women, death a much larger fraction for men, reflecting differences in life expectancy and the younger age at marriage of women, on average.


Nous utilisons un échantillon longitudinal de 20 % de déclarations de revenus pour explorer les tendances et les changements dans l’état matrimonial, en mettant l’accent sur le comportement des cohortes. Nous définissons cinq cohortes différentes, chacune avec un âge différent en 1995, et nous utilisons une période de suivi de 20 ans. Nous examinons et comportement des cohortes. Nous définissons cinq cohortes différentes, chacune avec un âge différent en 1995, et nous utilisons une période de suivi de 20 ans. Nous examinons et le même partenaire de celles avec un autre partenaire. Les comparaisons entre les cohortes montrent une évolution vers une proportion accrue se déclarant célibataires ou vivant en union libre et une proportion réduite se déclarant mariés. La proportion de personnes mariées au même partenaire diminue et la proportion de personnes mariées à un nouveau partenaire augmente, ce qui implique une certaine réduction de la stabilité du mariage. Les unions libres, plus fréquentes à des âges plus jeunes, semblent instables, mais une grande partie de l’instabilité apparente disparaît lorsque l’on tient compte des unions de fait qui se transformeraient en unions mariées avec le même partenaire; l’union libre en tant que première étape prénuptiale semble donc être de plus en plus courante. Aux âges plus avancés, le décès d’un partenaire est le principal facteur de rupture à la fin d'un mariage, surtout chez les hommes : le veuvage représente une fraction beaucoup plus élevée pour les hommes, reflétant les différences d’espérance de vie et le jeune âge au mariage des femmes en moyenne.

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The data are available in Statistics Canada Research Data Centres and accessible to those with approved projects. See to make application.

Code Availability

In the Supplementary Material, we provide the syntax code developed for the analysis to other researchers who wish to replicate our results.


  1. 1.

    Among the Canadian studies concerned with various aspects of marital stability based solely on cross-sectional data, we note Penning and Wu (2019) and Schimmele and Wu (2016), both of which draw on the Statistics Canada 2007 General Social Survey, Wright (2019) which draws on the 2011 GSS, and Margolis and Choi (2020), which draws on successive censuses. For a more extensive review of studies relating to marital stability, see Denton et al. (2020).

  2. 2.

    They explore a number of other aspects as well, including remarriage, and provide extensive references to the earlier literature.

  3. 3.

    We note that the CRA definitions of these categories differ somewhat from those used in other major demographic sources, such as censuses and surveys.


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The calculations presented in this article were conducted at the McMaster Research Data Centre (RDC), which is part of the Canadian Research Data Centre Network (CRDCN). The services and activities provided by the McMaster RDC are made possible by the financial or in-kind support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Canadian Foundation for Innovation, Statistics Canada, and McMaster University. The authors are grateful for helpful comments from the reviewers.

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Correspondence to Byron G. Spencer.

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Denton, F.T., Spencer, B.G. & Yip, T.A. Changes and Stability in Marital Status: Evidence from Canadian Income Tax Returns. Can. Stud. Popul. (2021).

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  • Marital status
  • Marital stability
  • Longitudinal tax records
  • Cohort behaviour


  • État matrimonial
  • Stabilité des unions
  • Déclarations de revenus
  • Comportements de cohortes