Family policies in Germany are currently in a period of transition. For a number of decades, the German government invested relatively large amounts of money into marriage and family, but the difficulties faced by parents in balancing work and family life remained (Gauthier 1996). The introduction of an earnings-related parental leave system in 2007 and of a legal claim to childcare for children from age one onwards in 2013 were part of a paradigm shift that weakened the male breadwinner family (Ostner 2010). The aim of these new policy instruments is to support working parents and to reduce work-family conflicts.
Today’s unified nation-state of Germany was, prior to 1990, composed of a conservative welfare state in the West, and a socialist system in the East. The two states followed two different policy paths during the division of Germany from 1949 to 1989 (Dorbritz 2008). In the East, childbirth and the employment of both parents were supported, and the dual-earner family was the dominant family model. In West Germany, politicians followed the male breadwinner model, which supported marriage and the traditional division of labour between husband and wife. However, in order to avoid analogies with Nazi Germany, West German politicians tended to reject pro-natalist policies. Based on the principle of “sustainable family policy”, which was first introduced in 2002, the German government has been seeking to increase fertility and reduce child poverty by mitigating work-family conflicts.
Since 1996, children in Germany between the age of three and the age of school entry have been legally entitled to a kindergarten place. In 2013, the right to childcare was extended to children starting from age one. Public childcare is supplied by non-profit providers, mainly organisations of the Protestant or Catholic churches, and the municipalities themselves (Evers and Riedel 2002). In addition to publicly funded childcare institutions, such as kindergartens and crèches, family day care is increasingly popular, and is often state-subsidised. Although prices are not fixed by federal law, parents’ fees are required to vary according to family size and income. Since 2006, working parents have been able to deduct childcare costs of up to 4,000 euros per year from their income taxes. Compared with other countries, the cost of childcare is low (Immervoll and Barber 2006). However, parents’ contributions are set by the municipalities, so there are considerable regional differences. In some states, childcare for the year before school entry is free; and in Rhineland-Palatinate, children from age two onwards can attend childcare centres without paying fees.
More than 90% of children ages three to five attend some form of childcare, but often on a part-time basis. In 2014, about 75% of these children spent less than seven hours per day in day care (Destatis 2014a). For younger children, the provision of childcare services in the eastern and the western parts of the country follow two different patterns, even though German unification occurred more than 20 years ago. The east has had a long tradition of institutional care for children under age three, which is reflected in a broad usage of formal care for this age group (52% in 2014). In the west, however, childcare has traditionally focused on children between the age of three and the age of school entry. In 2014, the municipalities in the west provided 27% of children under age three with care (Destatis 2014a). In addition to this east-west divide, there are regional differences in the availability and characteristics of childcare due to the decentralised system in Germany. Although the federal parliament enacts legal guidelines concerning childcare, the details regarding the organisation, the fees, and the schedules are mainly left to the states or the municipalities; this results in variations in regulations. For comparative analyses, it should be noted that the compulsory school age in Germany is six (Plantenga et al. 2008).
Parental leave (including maternity protection)
In both East and West Germany, the first form of parental leave—introduced in the 1970s—was an extended maternity leave. In 1986, both states introduced a form of parental leave that could be taken by either the mother or the father. In the unified German state, a new parental leave system similar to the Swedish model was introduced in 2007 (Ostner 2010). Parents can take leave until the child’s third birthday. Until the child is 14 months old, an earnings substitution is paid, with two months reserved for one of the parents on a “use it or lose it” basis. This arrangement is supposed to encourage fathers to take leave and be more involved in childcare. Since its introduction, the uptake by fathers has steadily increased, from 21% for children born in 2008 to 29% for children born in 2012. Of the fathers who took leave for children born in 2012, 78% did not take more than two months (Destatis 2014c). Employed parents receive 67% of their average monthly income from the 12 months before birth (Erler 2010). The monthly benefit cannot exceed 1,800 euros. If their income is below 1,000 euros per month, parents receive a stepwise adjusted benefit of between 67% and 100% of their previous income. After some budget cuts took effect in 2011, the benefit has been reduced stepwise for parents with an average individual income above 1,200 euros per month, but is not below 65% of their previous income. Non-employed parents receive the minimum amount of 300 euros. For recipients of welfare, the parental leave benefit is paid but treated as income, and is therefore deducted from the welfare benefit (BMFSFJ 2014).
Maternity protection has a long tradition in Germany, dating back to 1878. At that time, employers were not allowed to employ female workers in the first three weeks after they had given birth. A maternity leave benefit amounting to half of the average wage was introduced together with obligatory health insurance in 1883. Maternity leave and maternity leave benefits evolved over time, and today employed women are entitled to six weeks of leave before childbirth, and eight weeks of leave after childbirth. Maternity leave is mandatorily extended by four weeks in case of premature or multiple births (BMFSFJ 2013). Currently, women receive an earnings substitution of 100% based on the average net income earned during the 13 weeks (or three months) before the maternity protection period starts. The benefit is paid by the health insurance plan and the employer.
Generally, women are not permitted to work during the period of maternity protection. While women are allowed to work if they wish to do so during the six weeks of maternity protection before childbirth, they are banned from working during the eight weeks after childbirth. During pregnancy and until four months after childbirth, women’s employment cannot be terminated (unless a fixed-term contract expires). Under labour law, pregnant women in physically demanding jobs and mothers who are breastfeeding are protected.
The first unified income tax system of the German Empire, introduced in 1920, already included regulations allowing for tax deductions based on the number of children in a family (Oberhauser 1980). Direct child benefit payments were first introduced in the 1930s, but were revoked in 1945. Monthly child benefits for families with many children were re-introduced in East Germany in 1950 (Schulz 1998), and in West Germany in 1954. In subsequent reforms in both countries, these benefits have been extended to children of lower birth orders.
Currently, Germany has a mixed system of child benefits and tax allowances which redistributes resources from childless people to families, and from higher-income families to low-income families (Leitner et al. 2008). Child benefits are virtually universal, and are paid as monthly lump-sum payments per child, with the amounts varying depending on the number of children in the family (2014: 184 euros for the first and second child, 190 euros for the third child, and 215 euros for the fourth and each additional child). The benefit is generally paid until the child is 18 years old, or 25 years old if the child is in education. However, from age 18 onwards, the benefit is means-tested based on the income of the child. Whether parents are entitled to tax allowances beyond the child benefit payments is determined by the tax authorities when the parents file their tax return. Parents with annual incomes above approximately 63,000 euros (or singles with annual incomes above 33,500 euros) are eligible for additional tax allowances.
There are special benefits for single parents. They can claim an extra tax allowance of 1,308 euros per child to account for the fact that there is only one potential income earner in the household. In cases of non-compliance with child support obligations, residential parents can claim an advance payment for children up to age 12 for a maximum of six years. Since this is an advance payment, the liable parent may have to reimburse the government for these payments if it turns out that he or she actually did have the means to pay child support. In 2014, the payment amounts were 133 euros per month for a child under age six and 180 euros per month for a child between the ages of six and 11.
In Germany, the minimum marriage age is the age of majority, or age 18. This minimum age also applies to same-sex partners who want to register their union. Legal same-sex unions are relatively new in Germany. Since 2001, same-sex couples have been permitted to register their partnership. However, same-sex couples in a registered union still do not have the same rights and obligations as legally married heterosexual couples. Currently, the main difference lies in the right to adopt, as same-sex partners are not allowed to jointly adopt a non-biological child. Since mid-2014, successive adoption has been permitted, which means that one partner is allowed to adopt the child that the other partner had previously adopted. Since mid-2013, same-sex couples in registered partnerships are subject to the same tax regulations as married couples (i.e., the income-splitting effect), whereas before they were treated for tax purposes as unmarried couples.
No-fault divorce was first introduced in West Germany in 1977. In the former GDR, it was introduced as early as 1955. However, unilateral divorce was introduced in the two countries at the same time. Since then, spouses have had to be separated for at least one year before they can be divorced. If one of them objects to the divorce, the spouses have to wait three years before being divorced. The 1977 version of the regulations regarding marriage and divorce in the Civil Law Code is, to a large extent, still valid.
After divorcing, ex-spouses are in principle obliged to provide for themselves. This priority of self-responsibility was explicitly emphasised in the Alimony and Child Support Amendment Act of 2008. However, the economically weaker partner can claim alimony from the economically stronger ex-partner under certain conditions. For example, the residential parent of children under age three is not required to work, and may claim alimony for that reason. Depending on the availability of childcare and the parent’s employment potential, the parent may be required to work at least part-time after the youngest child turns three. The amount and duration of alimony depends on the income gap between the ex-partners, the duration of the marriage, the living standard during the marriage, and the division of labour that was practiced during the marriage. If this division of labour led to disadvantages for one of the spouses, the period of post-divorce support may be extended.
Generally, parents are granted joint legal custody of their children after divorce. The non-residential parent has to pay child support to the residential parent, unless the child spends half of the time at each parent’s household. Child support payments depend only on the age of the child and the income of the liable parent, but not of the eligible parent. Child support can be claimed until the child has finished professional education. This holds for all children, not just for those of divorced parents.
Cohabitation and civil unions
Unmarried cohabitation does not have any legal status in Germany. Opposite-sex couples cannot register their partnership as a civil union. The rights of cohabiting and married couples therefore differ in areas such as taxation, inheritance, health insurance, and adoption. However, since the Child Affairs Reform of 1998, the children of married and unmarried parents have been treated equally before the law.
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