Policy Description

Family Policies: Estonia (2014)


Since the middle of the 19th century, the demographic, economic, and social developments in Estonia generally followed the tide of modernisation. Like other countries in northern and western Europe, Estonia adopted the institution of civil marriage, albeit in two steps. In 1920 registration offices were opened at city governments to provide an alternative for individuals who, for one reason or another, did not opt for ecclesiastical marriage. The reform was completed in 1926 when the new family law transferred the legal recognition of marriage from the church to the state. From 1 July 1926 onwards, the rights of an individual generated through marital and family relations became wholly dependent on civil registration (RT 1925, 191/192). From the modern perspective, the 1926 family law incorporated several traditional principles which were characteristic of western European legislation of that period. The new Soviet authorities ordered the cancellation of the family register, and the general concept of family legislation was unchanged until the end of the 1980s. 

In the interwar period, an integrated approach to the development of child welfare policies was applied. New policies in most areas were introduced, and various activities and legal regulations were closely coordinated. In the early 1920s, the joint Ministry for Social Affairs and Education was among the government agencies that supported the idea of an integrated approach. The principles regarding the social protection of children were summarised in the Social Welfare Law (RT 1925, no.120/121). Among the innovations of the 1930s was the introduction of child allowances, which were based on level of income and place of residence, and were provided to each child up to 18 years of age. The families of central and local government employees, workers in state enterprises, and military personnel were eligible to receive the allowances (RT 1935, no.87; 1936, no.93). Birth allowances were also introduced, and medical services related to childbirth were provided free of charge. However, when Estonia became an independent state, the child- and fertility-related policies developed in the 1920s and 1930s were eliminated.

As Soviet ideology strongly advocated the equal rights of women, Soviet laws provided working mothers with numerous benefits. However, these policies did little to recognise men’s roles as fathers. The benefits were largely tied to the workplace, and single mothers were given a number of additional benefits. In terms of housing policy, preference was given to officially registered families with children. While families led by single mothers had lower chances of obtaining housing, they were provided with certain advantages: e.g., they had a much greater chance of being granted a place in a childcare centre. Benefits were originally available to working mothers only. Until the Law on Employment Contracts came into force in 1992, the provisions of the Labour Code of the Estonian SSR (1972) and the provisions of legal acts valid on the territory of the Republic of Estonia applied. The 1992 law established numerous benefits for working minors, pregnant women, and mothers with infants. The Law on Leave of 1993 regulated the relationship between the employee and the employer in terms of leave entitlement. The Law on Working Time and Leave, which went into effect in 1994, provided several benefits related to children.

Childcare provision

The state and local governments are responsible for children’s education and pre-schools. A child who does not attend a pre-school may participate in the activities of a preparatory group which meets in either a pre-school or a school. Local governments must provide all children between the ages of 18 months and seven years the opportunity to attend childcare. 

There are four main types of pre-schools or childcare centres: (1) crèche, for children up to the age of three; (2) nursery school, which is subdivided into age groups (a younger group for three- to four-year-olds, a middle group for five- to six-year-olds, an older group for six- to seven-year-olds, and a composite group for two- to seven-year-olds); (3) nursery school for children with special needs; and (4) primary school combined with nursery school.  

According to the Pre-school Childcare Institutions Act, education and schooling in a pre-primary institution should be based on the curriculum of the pre-primary institution, which in turn must comply with the national curriculum for pre-school childcare institutions approved by the government of the republic. 

Until the 1990s, crèches (for children under age three) and kindergartens (for children ages 3-7) were universally available, and were provided at a very low cost to parents. Because of the low quality of these services, and especially of crèches, the number of day care facilities declined sharply in the 1990s. In addition, at the beginning of the 1990s a maintenance allowance for parents whose children were not in childcare was provided to encourage mothers to stay home with their children. However, after reaching a low point in 1993, childcare enrolment rates started to recover, and by 2000 they had exceeded the rates attained in the late 1980s. The gradual increase in enrolment continued during most of the 2000s, and by 2012 20% of one-year-olds (the group covered by parental leave), 70% of two-year-olds, 90% of three- to four-year-olds, and more than 90% of five- to six-year-olds were attending public childcare.

Childcare services are financed by rural municipality, city, and/or state budgets. The share of the cost of pre-school covered by a parent for one child may not exceed 20% of the minimum wage set by the government. In 2014, the minimum monthly wage in Estonia was 350 euros. The actual amount of the payment is determined by the municipal or town council, and it may vary according to the age of the child, the financial situation of the pre-school, or other factors. The daily amount to be paid by the parent for the child's meals is set by the board of trustees of the pre-school. 

Children attending a private nursery school have the right to receive discounts funded by the state and local governments on the same basis as children attending a municipal nursery school. Expenses for study materials and meals are covered by the parents, while the administration and payroll costs are covered by the local government. 

Parental leave (including maternity protection)

There are three main forms of childcare-related leave: maternity leave, paternity leave, and  parental/childcare leave. 

Maternity leave (funded from health insurance contributions) lasts for 140 days and covers 100% of earnings with no ceiling. The leave may be taken 30-70 days before the birth of a child. If fewer than 30 days of leave are taken before the expected birth, those days are deducted from the 140 calendar days. The minimum wage (355 euros per month in 2014) is paid to mothers who did not work during the previous calendar year, but who worked prior to the birth of the child.

For fathers, a 10-day paternity leave (funded from general taxation) covers 100% of earnings, with a ceiling of triple the amount of the average salary in the country. Fathers are entitled to take leave during the mother’s maternity leave or during the two months after the birth of the child. In 2002-2007 the duration of the leave was 14 days (with a flat-rate benefit of approximately 4.2 euros per day). Since 2008, the duration of leave has been 10 working days. In 2008, the uptake of paternity leave roughly quadrupled. The scheme was temporarily suspended in 2009–2012, and was re-introduced in 2013.

Maternity leave, which is followed by parental leave, is available to the mother or father (or other legal caregiver) until the child’s third birthday. Parental leave, which entitles the parent to return to the same position, may be used in a single continuous period or in several separate periods at any time until the child is three years of age.

The parental benefit (funded from general taxation) is paid for a period of 435 days at 100% of average earnings based on the parent’s employment in the previous calendar year, with a ceiling of 2,378 euros per month, or three times average earnings. If a mother is not entitled to maternity leave, she is permitted to start receiving the parental benefit from the moment her child is born until the child reaches the age of 18 months. The father of the child is entitled to receive the parental benefit once the child has reached the age of 70 days. If the benefit has been paid to a parent for one child and the parent’s next child is born less than two and a half years later, and the benefit amount for the second child is smaller than the benefit amount for the previous child, the benefit is determined on the basis of the parent’s previous income. The parent is allowed to continue working while receiving the parental benefit, but if the income he or she earns exceeds the rate of the benefit, the amount of the benefit is reduced (the maximum reduction is 50%). If the parent’s income is less than the base rate of the benefit (320 euros per month in 2014), the amount of the benefit is not changed.

The basis for the calculation of the childcare allowance is the childcare allowance rate (CCAR=76.70 euros in 2014). The childcare allowance (funded from general taxation) is a flat-rate payment of 38.35 (= ½  CCAR) per month for each child, which is paid from the end of the payment of the parental benefit until the child reaches three years of age to the child’s parents, regardless of whether they are working. If the parents have children between three and eight years of age in addition to having one or more children of up to three years of age, the amount of the monthly childcare allowance is 19.18 euros (= ¼  CCAR) for each child between three and eight years of age. If the parents have children between three and eight years of age and there are three or more children over age three in the family who receive the child allowance, the amount of the monthly childcare allowance is 19.18 euros (= ¼  CCAR) for each child between three and eight years of age. Parents who receive the childcare allowance and who have one or more children under age one are entitled to an additional monthly childcare allowance of 6.40 euros for each child under age one.

Family allowances

The brief period of 1982-1988 stands out in the post-war decades because important changes were made in child- and fertility-related policies in the Soviet Union, including in Estonia. These reforms shifted the policy focus away from large families and towards more typical families.

The Child Benefit Act of 1992 introduced universal child benefits. Since 2002, the types and the extent of state-provided family benefits, and the conditions under which they are granted, have been regulated by the State Family Benefits Act. Depending on the type of benefit, family benefits financed from the state budget are paid either as a lump sum, once a month, once a quarter, or once a year. If an individual is entitled to receive several types of family benefits, these benefits are determined and disbursed simultaneously. Child benefits are calculated on the basis of the child allowance rate. Childcare allowances and allowances for families with seven or more children are calculated on the basis of the childcare allowance rate. Both rates are established each year with the calculation of the state budget, and the new rate cannot be lower than the existing rate. The family benefits are coefficients of those rates. In 2014, the child allowance rate was 9.59 euros, and the childcare allowance rate was 76.7 euros. None of the benefits paid under the State Family Benefit Act are subject to income tax. 

There were nine types of state family benefits in 2014: childbirth allowance (320 euros, or 1,000 euros for multiple births), child allowance (19.8 euros for the first and the second child, and 76.72 euros for the third and each subsequent child ), childcare allowance (see the subsection on parental leave), single parent’s child allowance (19.18 euros), the conscript’s child allowance (a child allowance granted to individuals in alternative service of 47.95 euros), foster care allowance (191.8 euros, the amount has not changed since 2008), start in independent life allowance (383.60 euros), adoption benefit (320 euros), and parent’s allowance for families with seven or more children (168.74 euros). The state pays family benefits to all children until they reach the age of 16. Children enrolled in basic or secondary schools or vocational education institutions providing basic education have the right to receive family benefits until the age of 19. The single parent’s child allowance is paid for a child with a birth registration which has no entry concerning the father, or for whom an entry has been made on the basis of a statement by the mother. In 2013 universal child allowances were complemented with an additional means-tested child benefit paid to children in low-income families. The monthly amount of was set at 9.59 euros for families with one child and 19.18 euros for families with two or more children.     

The government has decided that from 2015 onwards, the monthly child allowance will be increased to 45 euros for the first and the second child, and to 100 euros for the third and for each subsequent child. Additional means-tested child allowances will be increased to 45 euros (families with one child) or 90 euros (families with two or more children).


Under the 1922 family law (RT 1922, no.138), the marriageable age in Estonia was set at 18 for men and 16 for women. The law established that a marriage must be contracted between a man and a woman. In 1926 a new family law transferred the legal recognition of marriage from the church to the state. 

Under the Marriage and Family Code of Estonian SSR, a person was deemed marriageable if he or she was at least 18 years old. Local authorities were allowed to lower this age by up to two years in exceptional cases. 

In 1995, a new family law was enacted in Estonia. But in terms of its basic concepts and the scope of its regulations, this new law was very similar to its predecessor, the Marriage and Family Code of 1970. Under the law, only legally registered marriages were regulated. Marriage between individuals of the same gender was not permitted. The marriageable age was set at 18, but the minimum age for marrying under certain conditions was lowered from 16 to 15, and the conditions for marrying while under age 18 were liberalised: i.e., a parent’s or guardian’s written permission was sufficient, and the permission of a government official was no longer required. Only a marriage registered in the civil registration office was considered legal, and a wedding in a church was not sufficient. The new law also stated that the marriage contract regulates the material relations between the spouses.

During the 1990s, as many Estonians postponed marriage, the mean age at first marriage increased by more than three years. In 2002, the mean age at first marriage was 28.2 for males and 25.5 for females. The total first marriage rate fell to 0.35, one of the lowest in Europe. The timing of divorce changed less dramatically. 

The Family Law Act of 2010 also defined marriage as a union of one man and one woman, and did not attach any explicit legal consequences to unions other than registered marriage. Under the new law, partners under age 18 again had to obtain the permission of a court to marry.


Conceptually, the family legislation enacted in Estonia in the 1920s and 1930s was in line with private law typical of the Baltic provinces. The norms expressed in these laws corresponded to traditional views found in western European family law of that period. The norms stipulated, for example, that the husband was superior in some spheres, that marriage was to be regarded as a life-long commitment, and that divorce was to be based largely on the culpability (fault) of spouses. On the other hand, divorce could be granted by mutual consent with only a three-month waiting period. Divorce on the grounds of at least two years of separation caused by disagreement between the spouses was also permitted.

In 1944 divorce was made much more difficult, as couples were required to participate in a prolonged two-stage legal proceeding, and to pay high fees. In the 1960s, family legislation was liberalised. In 1965, the previous restrictions on divorce were abolished and a less complicated legal procedure was established. The change in proceedings resulted in a marked rise in the divorce rate during the following years, which reflected the fact that many couples who had separated had not sought a legal divorce. But even after this surge the divorce rate continued to rise over the next 15 years, and stabilised in the 1980s. 

Under the Marriage and Family Code of Estonian SSR, the divorce had to be granted by a court if there were underage children in the family, or if there were disputes about property or about paying maintenance to a disabled spouse. Under the family law of 1995, couples whose marriage is dissolved by a decision of the court are not required to register the divorce at the civil registration office. If the couple have underage children, the divorce must be registered at the civil registration office even if there are no disputes between the parties. A divorce is granted on the basis of an agreement of the spouses in a joint written petition which the spouses submit in person. The divorce must be finalised no earlier than one month and no later than three months after the petition is filed. A divorce can also be granted in a civil registration office based on the petition of one spouse if the other spouse has been declared missing or has been divested of active legal capacity. Divorce matters are usually brought to the court only when there are disputed issues the spouses cannot agree upon. 

Cohabitation and civil unions

In Estonia, the prevalence of cohabitation has been increasing steadily since the 1960s (Katus, Puur and Põldma 2002). Despite this trend, there were no amendments related to cohabitation added to the 1970 Marriage and Family Code. Thus, the law continued to disregard the biggest transformation in family life. The only provision which took into account this emerging change was the introduction of a joint declaration of the parents at the registration of the birth. The joint declaration provided non-married parents with the option (which was previously non-existent) to register their son/daughter as a common child, rather than having to undertake an adoption procedure. The code ignored consensual unions as a type of family relationship separate from a registered marriage, which was consistent with the legal practices in most other parts of the USSR.

The 2010 Family Law Act defines marriage as a union of one man and one woman, and does not attach any explicit legal consequences to unions other than registered marriage. Cohabiting partners can apply private law in making appropriate legal arrangements regarding common rights, the inheritance of property, etc. (The concept of unmarried cohabitation is also applied in some laws regulating the economic and social domain. Unmarried cohabitation is considered in bankruptcy law (RT 2001, no.93), in the law of credit institutions (RT 2002, no.23), and in the law of the financial inspectorate (RT 2001, no.48). In addition, consensual unions are considered in the payment of income support benefits (Kullerkupp, 2001). Although the private law provisions allow for a degree of flexibility, the prevalence of cohabitation suggests that lawmakers should consider taking steps towards greater statutory regulation of these arrangements to safeguard the rights of cohabiting individuals. 

A comparison of data from the 2000 and the 2011 population and housing censuses shows that over this period the share of people living in a consensual union increased significantly, and the share of people living with a legal spouse decreased. In 2011, 34.5% of the population aged 15 and older were living with a legal spouse and 15.6% were living in a consensual union; compared to 2000, the share of people living with a legal spouse had decreased 5.4 percentage points and the share of people living in a consensual union had increased 4.7 percentage points.

In April 2014 the Draft Civil Partnership Act (Kooseluseadus), was presented to the Estonian parliament. The parliament approved the Civil Partnership Act on 9 October 2014, and it will go into effect on 1 January 2016. Before it can be implemented, a number of amendments to existing laws and the enactment of additional laws are needed. The Partnership Act gives unmarried couples, regardless of sexual orientation, the same rights as married couples to property and inheritance. It also allows one partner to adopt the other partner’s children. The law requires unmarried couples to register their partnership in order to gain those rights.


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Asta Põldma
Estonian Institute for Population Studies, Tallinn University

Data collected in the framework of the Population Europe Research Finder and Archive (PERFAR) in 2014.

Please cite as:
SPLASH-db.eu (2014): Policy: "Family Policies: Estonia" (Information provided by Asta Põldma). Available at: https://splash-db.eu [Date of access].