Marriage on the blockchain

by Sarah Firisen

WeddingWhen I was in my early to mid twenties and starting out in my career, my grandmother repeatedly told me (and she meant it with love), that if I wasn’t careful, I’d quickly end up an old maid. The day she watched me marry a nice Jewish boy under a chuppah was truly one of the happiest days of her life. As far as she was concerned, nothing I’d achieved up to that point, undergraduate and graduate degrees, a pretty successful career for a 27 year old, nothing came close to matching the achievement of getting married. And it wasn’t just my grandmother; everything, everyone, all the messaging around me, confirmed that I had participated in an enviable, important rite of passage. Of course, when I got divorced 17 years late, I then participated in another increasingly common rite of passage.

Marrying for romantic love is a very recent human concept. Broadly speaking, in the western world at least, marriage 1.0 was about property, securing it, extending it, the inheritance of it. Marriage 2.0 became more about the sanctity of the family unit, elevating the notion of the perfect wife and mother, a Donna Reed like platonic ideal. With the sexual revolution and the rise of feminism, we moved to marriage 3.0, the marriage of equals: two working parents, paternity leave, fathers changing diapers, even stay-at-home days. How’s that working out for us? People are still marrying, according to the APA, “ In Western cultures, more than 90 percent of people marry by age 50.” However, it’s also the case that “about 40 to 50 percent of married couples in the United States divorce. The divorce rate for subsequent marriages is even higher.” Just anecdotally, I’m surprised it’s not even higher. I feel like I know fewer and fewer couples who are happy in their marriages and news about the most recent couple to split comes at a pretty fast clip. A good friend and I used to have this conversation all the time and she’d say “I really only know one couple who’ve been married for a while who I really think are genuinely happy together.” Well guess what, they’re now divorced as well.

And yet, despite the statistics, despite being surrounded by a deluge of examples of the failure of marriage as an institution, people keep doing it. Of course, the idea of “The Wedding”, the greatest day of your life, saying “Yes to the dress”, pledging to love honor and obey Mr Right till death do us part, the whole fantasy is constantly perpetuated in our culture (and not just by our Jewish grandmothers). And woman after woman, puts on a white dress and walks down that aisle complacent in the certain knowledge that HER marriage will be different. But it rarely is.

To me, the most astounding thing about modern marriage is how easy it is to get into and how hard it is to get out of. In New York City, it’s pretty easy to get a marriage certificate. Show identification, swear there are no legal impediments to your marriage, you’re done. Get divorced, that’s another matter. In New York State, you have to hire an attorney to file for divorce for you. When my ex-husband and I got divorced, it was very amicable. We agreed to all the financial and child care arrangements between us and decided to share the attorney (which basically meant that he had an attorney and I waived my rights to be represented by one.) And even then, this took months and cost a few thousand dollars!

In Massachusetts, if you have children under 18 and want to divorce, both parents have to take mandatory parent education class (and pay $80 each for the privilege), “These programs help parents of children under 18 understand and handle the challenges to their families caused by divorce, and address and reduce reduce the stress their children may experience.” Of course, no one makes you take such a class before you get married and decide to have children.

One solution is that perhaps people eventually stop getting married entirely. But, particularly when there are children and property involved, it would still seem to make sense to have a legally binding arrangement of some sort, certainly to have a contract in place for what will happen when the arrangement ends. So I’m proposing that it’s time for marriage 4.0, marriage on the blockchain and that we manage the contracts associated with that using smart contracts.

The problem it seems most people have with prenuptial agreements is that they, so the argument goes at least, presuppose that the marriage will end. But of course, statistically speaking, the marriage probably will end. So why not have a frank conversation before going into it about what will happen when it does? A short while ago, there was a New York Times Modern Love piece about a couple who renegotiate the terms of their relationship on a yearly basis, everything from big tickets items like, do they want to have children, to more mundane ones such as where sweaty workout clothes get deposited. In marriage 4.0, it would be mandatory to have a prenuptial agreement, put it in a smart contract on the blockchain, and then renegotiate the agreement as necessary and then redeploy the smart contract. When one or both people want to end the marriage, the terms in the most recent smart contract are triggered, the marriage is ended and that is recorded on the blockchain. I admit to not having all the details of how the contract would be enforced, but there are already companies and organizations thinking about general legal contracts on the blockchain, so smarter people than me are already thinking through relevant concepts. For example, OpenLaw “OpenLaw is a blockchain-based protocol for the creation and execution of legal agreements…..OpenLaw is the first project to actually enable the creation of “smart” legal agreements. Our legal markup language provides an easy way for anyone to reference and trigger an Ethereum-based smart contract to manage contractual promises. Using OpenLaw, any Ethereum smart contract can be embedded into a legal agreement in a few lines and automatically triggered once the agreement is digitally signed by all parties.”

The general idea of managing identity on the blockchain is one that is being talked about increasingly in many scenarios, voting being a significant one, “The argument goes that if our identity were on the blockchain, it would give us more control over this information, and with proper applications allow us to present just the minimum amount of information a given party needs to identify us.” If identity for each person was managed on the blockchain, then there would be no need for a license, the ending (or not) of a prior marriage would be recorded on the blockchain. Unlike today’s system that primarily relies on people being truthful about such things, this would be an immutable record of marital status and indeed identity. The idea of marriage on the blockchain isn’t a totally original one, the first couple to do this were Joyce and David Mondrus who were married in 2014. But this wasn’t in any way a legally binding contractual arrangement. What if it were?

If this all sounds totally insane, consider this: in Estonia it’s already happening, “Now, the Estonian government is partnering with Bitnation to offer a public notary service to Estonian e-residents based on blockchain technology. Via the international Bitnation Public Notary, e-residents, regardless of where they live or do business, will be able to notarize their marriages, birth certificates, business contracts, and much more on the blockchain,”

One reason often put forward for making divorce difficult is that if the barrier to ending a marriage is too low, people will divorce at even greater rates than they currently are. So what? We don’t care how often people buy and sell houses. Why should this legal arrangement be any different? And perhaps if people were forced to have frank conversations about marital and post-marital expectations before creating their first entry on the marriage 4.0 blockchain, they might actually start off on a sounder footing. And even if they didn’t, the messiness of ending that arrangement would be greatly reduced. I’m guessing the only people who really have a problem with such possible outcome are divorce attorneys.

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