Divorced and widowed: Why do forms ask about these?

Inspired by the previous thread, [“Why did an American doctor want to know all these details?”](http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?t=657389 Why did an American doctor want to know all these details?)

Ever since getting divorced, I’ve noticed that most forms that request demographic information have a category for “divorced”. (Confirmation bias, I know.) I’ve seen this on everything from government forms to product satisfaction surveys. My question is, why? “Single” and “married” are ongoing statuses. “Divorced” is a reference to a discrete event in the past, as is “widowed”. I presume that people who get remarried stop labelling themselves as divorced or widowed. But if divorced or widowed people never remarry, do demographers expect them to switch back to “single” at some point? Or are we expected to keep labelling ourselves with these statuses until the end of our lives? What value does it give demographers to know that at some point in his life, John Doe taking your survey was married?

(I realize there’s an edge case where a person could be legally married but going through a divorce, but really, is that temporary state so prevalent as to deserve a survey answer? I’ve never seen one for the similar in-between state of “engaged”.)

What are the forms for?

I can see that being medically relevant in a peripheral way - stress of divorce, etc. (the old saw that you often die within a year of your spouse).

For legal and financial reasons, it may or may not be relevant. Divorced or single are the same (I presume) for most benefits, but nobody asks if you have dependents to add to the benefits roll in or out of wedlock…

or it could be the people handing out the forms are tired of questions like “I’m divorced/widowed. Does that mean I need to check ‘single?’”

Ditto what md2000 said plus:

On medical forms, a person’s marital status affects who can make a decision in case you are unable to decide for yourself. A person’s spouse is the default if no other has been specified. If you are divorced, there can be a concern that your ex-spouse might show up and try to dictate things since they would not know he/she is your ex but has proof of marriage. If you check “divorced”, they know to ignore him/her.

(Although it seems that all too often they take people at their word.)

Similar situations arise concerning some other matters: access to personal info, making decisions about funerals, etc. So it’s a good thing to know.

md2000, I believe I’ve seen it recently on my income tax forms, driver’s license renewal form, medical evaluation form (for seeing a new doctor), and many surveys. The surveys are from different companies and have to do with consumer products (like phone service and brands of milk) and occasionally current events and politics. (I do them to earn Air Miles.)

Also, I think your last answer is probably the best one. I can imagine people asking that a lot and driving the survey takers insane…

ftg, I hadn’t thought of an ex-spouse showing up and pretending to be a current spouse. That’s quite scary and very possible.

Didn’t Gary Coleman’s ex do that? I read sure she was going to be charged with his murder, but it looks like his death has gone down in the official records as an accident.


The city even wanted a copy of my divorce decree, from 8 years ago!

They needed to confirm that she has no stake in my house.

FWIW at least in Chile your civil (marital) status can be single, widowed, separated, anuled and divorced and once you get married you never go back to single, ever. This is all legally speaking of course.

Some places in Canada have “homestead rights”, meaning the one spouse cannot legally sell the marital home without the consent of the other. Of course, in Canada, the province is responsible for registering title; conceivably, if the clear rights changed they would want proof, but IIRC (not had to worry much) they leave this up to the lawyers to verify.

Of course, if it’s not about registering title deed, your city may want to know the complete list of people they can dun for property taxes if you fall behind. But then, if you buy the house then marry, how would they know?

In my case I got divorced, then years later bought the house.