Policy Description

Family Policies: Sweden (2014)


Sweden is well known for its generous family policy aimed at supporting the reconciliation of work and family life and the well-being of children. Swedish family policy is organized around goals such as family economic security and physical well-being, children’s rights and gender equality. The former two goals date back to the 1930s, when the modern Swedish welfare state emerged. The real expansion of family policy took place in the 1970s and since then family policy has been extended and improved, reflecting political and societal developments at large, not least demographic and economic developments.

Sweden spends a bit more than three per cent of GDP on benefits related to children and families, which is one of the highest shares in the EU. Beside these financial benefits, there is an extensive commitment to the provision of services to families such as highly subsidized childcare, free health and dental care, library services, etc. The guiding principles for family policy are in line with the ideology underpinning the Swedish welfare state, i.e. universal (rather than selective) welfare, general (rather than means-tested) rights, provided in cash or through services. It should be noted that tax reductions have never been a feature of Swedish welfare provision. Given the progressive taxation rate, such a design would disproportionately benefit high income earners and that is clearly not the aim with redistributive social policy. 

Family policy applies to all individuals permanently residing in Sweden. Family policy is also highly connected with labor market policy through the ambition that all individuals should be employed and be able to support oneself. The most important means through which family policy ambitions are achieved are: childcare provision through day care centers and after-school services, parental insurance with job-protected leave rights, and child allowance and other family benefits.

Sweden is often seen as the archetype of the Nordic welfare state model. It has been in the forefront internationally when it comes to active family policy and gender equity through a longstanding orientation towards work-family policies targeting men as well as women. Ambitious family policy is commonly seen as a main reason for the strong position of women in the labor market (among the highest female labor force participation rates in the EU) but also for relatively high fertility (almost at replacement level) and low poverty among children (among the lowest in the EU). Generous spending on family benefits, flexible leave and working hours for parents with young children and affordable, high-quality childcare are seen as the main factors for success.

Sweden was the first country in the world to introduce paid parental leave also to fathers in 1974. Since then the policy has been reformed continuously to strengthen the gender equality dimension. Swedish family policy is based on the dual-earner model and asserts the same rights and obligations regarding family and labor market work for both women and men. Dual-earner support is income-related and individual, which together with individual taxation provides incentives for families to have two incomes instead of one. 

Childcare provision

In 1943, the Swedish government introduced subsidized childcare, though publicly provided childcare was small-scale in the beginning and mainly a complement to the already existing crèches run by charity organizations, and Kindergarten, which mainly catered as play schools for the upper class. The government subsidy from 1943 onwards should, nevertheless, be seen as a statement and a policy orientation towards publicly provided care, available to all women. However, it took time to live up to this aspiration. 

During the 1950s, the number of day care facilities expanded little. The expansion of publicly provided day nursery and family day-care capacity did not start until the 1960s and accelerated in the 1970s when it became a political issue of high priority and seen as an important prerequisite of increased employment of women with young children and the establishment of the two-earner family. In 1972, only 12 per cent of children of age 1-6 were in publicly provided childcare – the rest was cared for by their mothers and through informal arrangements. In 1980, the corresponding figure was 36 per cent.

Representatives of the central government and local authorities played an active part in extending the much-needed childcare facili¬ties. Local authority childcare services came in for heavy subsidies as well. By the middle of the 1970s, charges covered only 15 per cent of the costs. This of course contributed to the favorable effect of childcare on female labor supply. Alongside the physical expansion of capacity, there was an ideological offensive, the importance of which, if not also its deliberate intention, was to reduce any possible emotional resistance existing against leaving children in local authority care. Attitudes to this ques¬tion changed greatly between the early 1950s and late 1980s. A series of official parliamentary reports during the 1960s and 1970s discussed the question of quality of childcare and in what way public childcare could serve as a resource or a complement to the nurture in the home. Their arguments and recommendations often ranged beyond childcare as such. Central government and local authority assistance was also regarded as a com¬plement to, and sometimes as a necessary compensation for the lack of, resources within the family. The shift of reproductive responsibility from family childcare to publicly organized childcare also received legitimacy through faith in the ability of institutions to provide children with the social skills that were regarded as necessary in an increasingly complex and demanding society. But by far the most common reason for the expansion of public day care was labor demand, and in what way public measures could increase female labor supply.

In 1990, more than half (57 per cent) of all children of age 1-6 were in publicly provided childcare. In 1997, the corresponding figure was 73 per cent. The extensive day care/pre-school services have become increasingly popular over time. From the 1990s and onwards there have been more of diversity among childcare facilities respecting educational approaches and the way they are operated (publicly, privately or as cooperations among parents). In 2008, reforms aimed to enhance the educational quality of childcare and introduced a voucher system to give parents more choice when it comes to different types of childcare. In 2012, 84 per cent of children age 1-5 were in childcare, which is well above EU means and even EU targets for childcare provision. The corresponding figure for 2002 was 75 per cent. The increase in childcare enrollment can be explained by a higher propensity for children 3-5 to enroll in pre-school, the right to pre-school among children to unemployed parents and to parents on parental leave (SFS 2000:1375) but the increase may also be explained by an increased interest and an acknowledgement in the educational aspects of pre-school.  

The overwhelming majority of children in day care/pre-school are enrolled in publicly provided childcare. Public childcare is guaranteed to all parents and operates on a whole-day basis. Childcare provision is the responsibility of each municipality (SFS 1976:381). 

Preschool (förskola), also called day care (dagis) is available (and guaranteed, SFS 1994:11) for ages 1-6 (today in effect ages 1-5, see below). It is free of charge for children aged 3 to 6 for up to 15 hours per week. Otherwise fees are proportional to parental income (yet capped at a maximum rate of about 150 euros per month) and inversely related to the number of children in a family (SFS 2001:160). The fee can be up to 3 per cent of the family’s monthly income. Childcare is, however, highly subsidized and parental fees cover, on average, only cover about 10 per cent of the real cost of a placement in pre-school.

In 2008, the Swedish government introduced a child-raising allowance (see section on Family allowances) in order to allow for more choice respecting the transition between parental leave and work for parents with children older than one but younger than three years. The allowance is administered by local authorities but not in place in all municipalities. It can be combined with paid employment but not with other social security benefits and it is paid to parents in connection with the parental leave period given that the child is not enrolled in public childcare. The child-raising allowance has gained very limited popularity.
From the year a child turns 6, he or she can participate in a non-compulsory pre-school year, which is free of charge and includes a hot lunch. It is designed to facilitate the transition from pre-school/day care to school and help children get accustomed to the school situation and prepare for primary school in a playful and non-demanding manner (without heavy studies or homework). School hours vary by municipality and after-school care is available.

Parental leave (including maternity protection)

The first statutory act of maternal protection was passed in 1900. It involved the prohibition of women performing industrial work during the two weeks following childbirth and reflected the dominating attitude toward mother’s at the time. The rationale behind this regulation was that women were weakened after delivery and needed protection because early return to work might compromise women’s health together with their roles of wife and mother. The law imposed leave without pay on women, and furthermore, the protective aspect of this law did not extend to job protection because was no guarantee that the woman would not be dismissed on account of her leave. Until 1939, a woman could lose her job when married (or pregnant), was not allowed to work immediately after childbirth and thus got no pay. In 1939, the prohibition of dismissal of women on grounds of engagement or marriage, etc. was prohibited by law (SFS 1939:171) and in 1946 the law was extended to include pregnancy (SFS 1945:844).

Maternity protection, early on, focused on the physical health of new mothers. Women were encouraged to get health insurance with maternity assistance in order to cover income loss in connection to childbirth. Gradually the unpaid leave was extended. In 1937 the law stated that unpaid maternity leave should be six weeks before and six weeks after childbirth. This called for a more general maternity assistance, which became a reality in 1938. In this year, the economic support of single mothers was introduced. In 1939unpaid maternity leave was extended to 4.5 months (of which 12 weeks should be taken after childbirth). Given these social policy advances in the 1930s, an early investigation into the social insurance situation of mothers concluded that the system at the time was incomplete, fragmented, and insufficient. The major concern was that although women since the turn of the century were obliged by law to take leave from work in connection with childbirth, and the period of leave has been gradually prolonged, there was still no legislation guaranteeing the compensation for loss of income. Civil servants in state, councils and municipalities did, due to agreements, retain most of their pay during leave, as did women in some private establishments such as banking and insurance companies. The investigation called for a resolution of the financial situation of mothers before further extensions of maternal leave. This was also a prerequisite for the Swedish ratification of the Maternity Protection Convention adopted by the ILO in 1952. In 1955 the first universal health insurance act came into effect (SFS 1947:1), which also contained maternity insurance and ensured financial compensation for all working women during maternal leave (SFS 1954:266). For women in need of additional support maternal assistance was kept.

Swedish family policy, as we know it in its present form, started to develop in the late 1960s. Before that, childbearing and family responsibilities were mainly the individual woman’s concern. In 1963, with the new Social Insurance Code (SFS 1962:381), paid maternity leave was extended to six months and benefits became earnings-related in order to cover for income loss.

In 1974, a number of benefits linked to childbirth and family leave were combined to form a system of “parental insurance” in which Sweden became the first country in the world to extend leave rights to fathers as well as to mothers (SFS 1974:473). The parental leave entitlement was given to all parents covered by national health insurance for at least 180 days before the birth of their child and was given jointly to the mother and father of the newborn child. Moreover, the cash benefit was improved, income-based and established at the same level as the sickness benefit, which for most people meant 90 per cent of the gross pay. There was continuous reform of the parental leave scheme in the 1970s. The entitlement period was increased to seven months in 1975 and to nine months in 1978, the last month being replaced at the flat rate for every-body. It was further extended to 12 months in 1980 with the last three months are replaced at a lower flat rate benefit. Wider freedom of choice was intro¬duced in the way leave could be taken, either full time or part time, until the child attains eight years of age (SFS 1977:630). Legislation also strengthened job-protection in connection with leave (SFS 1976:580). Parents with children under eight became legally entitled to reduce their working time to 75 per cent (in 1979). In addition, parents became entitled to compensation for temporary childcare, for example when a child gets sick. 

Reform of the parental leave scheme continued after the 1970s. There has been several extensions and improvements, and in the 1990s even cutbacks. There has also been reforms aiming at achieving more of gender equality with respect to parental leave use. Despite its gender-neutral character, the overwhelming majority of parental leave days have been used by mothers. The fraction of all users who are fathers has risen over the years. Fathers’ share of total benefit days was low initially very low, but rose slowly to about 10 per cent in the early 1990s. In order to achieve a more gender-equal uptake of parental leave, there were reforms in 1995 and 2002 introducing individualized leave which cannot be transferred between the parents (SFS 1994:1568 and 2001:141 respectively). In 1995 one of the 15 months was reserved for each parent and in 2002 a second mummy-/daddy-month was introduced while at the same time the leave scheme was extended to 16 months. Both reforms have been evaluated as having had positive effects on fathers’ parental leave use, which is nowadays about 25 per cent. In 2008 the conservative government tried an alternative strategy for promoting gender equality with respect to parental leave use by introducing the gender equality bonus (SFS 2008:313). The aim of the gender equality bonus is to improve the conditions for gender equality in parental leave and participation in working life by providing economic incentives for equal leave sharing: parents who take out an equal number of parental leave days receive the maximum bonus. Evaluations of this reform has hitherto not seen any effects of it.

Parental leave in Sweden is job-protected and granted by law to employed men and women. Employers may not disfavor job applicants or employees for reasons related to his/her parental leave when it comes to employment, promotion, training, allocation of work, or dismissal, etc. (SFS 2006:442). 

From a legal point of view, there is a distinction between the right to parental leave and the right to parental benefits. Parents are entitled to be on full-time leave until the child turns 18 months. If there are remaining parental leave benefits when the child is 18 months, then the parent is entitled to leave while using the benefits.

Parental benefits supports opportunities for parents to combine work or studies with parenthood. They involve money received when a parent (including those having custody of a child or being married/registered partner to the parent) is at home with a young child instead of working, seeking work or studying. Parental benefits apply to everyone living or working in Sweden and by that is covered by national health insurance and fall under the Social Insurance Code. 

Parental benefits are paid out for 480 days (approximately 16 months) for one child. For 390 days, the compensation is based on the income one has (at the sickness benefit level, i.e. 80 per cent of gross income in the previous 240 days, capped at a maximum 105 euros per day). For the other 90 days, the compensation is at a flat rate of 20 euros per day. The first 180 days must be days at the sickness benefit level. For children born before January 1 2014, each parent receive half of the 480 days but 60 days at the sickness benefit level are reserved for each parent while the rest of the days can be transferred between parents. For children born in 2014 or later, each parent receive 195 days each at the sickness benefit level and 45 days each at the minimum level, however, days can be transferred with the exception of the aforementioned 60 days at the sickness benefit level that are reserved to each parent.

Single parents or parents with sole custody of the child are entitled to all 480 days. Parents who have multiple births get extra: twins (90 days extra at the sickness benefit level and 90 days extra at the flat rate), triplets or more (180 days extra at the sickness benefit level for each child). Two parents can take out parental benefits for each child and thereby be home at the same time. Parents with a low income or no income receive approximately 25 euros per day at sickness benefit level. Parents who are registered job seekers receive parental benefits based on the income he/she had before when employed, i.e. at sickness benefit level. Students with no income from work get approximately 25 euros, but if they worked before starting the education, they can receive parental benefits that are based on the latest salary. 

Parents may use parental benefits until the child is eight or completes its first year at school. If the child is born January 1 2014 or later benefits may be taken out to the day the child turns 12 years of age or completes its fifth year at elementary school.

There are also temporary parental benefits that are paid to parents who stay home from work to look after a sick child under the age of 12 (in some cases 16). Temporary parental benefit may also be paid in certain other cases, for example when the child’s regular caregiver is ill. The father of a newborn baby is entitled to 10 days of temporary parental benefit in connection with the child’s birth. If the child is adopted, the parents are entitled to five days each. The pregnancy benefit is the modern kind of maternity protection which applies to women with physically demanding jobs who cannot work towards the end of pregnancy. Moreover, a woman who is not allowed to perform her ordinary work due to risks in the working environment may also receive pregnancy benefit.

Family allowances

The most important family allowances in Sweden are related to family policy and the social insurance system. They include different types of benefits that vary in importance for the family economy: parental benefits, child allowance, study assistance, maintenance support, housing allowance as well as family allowance during military service. The various forms of family allowance contribute to creating a good economic standard of living and increase freedom of choice for families with children and promote opportunities for parents to combine work and family life. All benefits, with the exception of study assistance, are administered by the Swedish Social Insurance Agency (Försäkrings¬kassan). The Swedish social insurance covers everyone that lives or works in Sweden and provides finan¬cial protection for families and children, for persons with a disability and in connection with work injury, illness and old age with the purpose to give financial security to families during periods with heavy burden of provision. The Swedish Social Insurance Agency ensures that different regulations are applied uniformly and fairly throughout the country. Decisions regarding benefits can be appealed in the manner that generally applies to administrative decisions. Study assistance (and other types of student financial aid) is administered by the National Board for Student Aid (Centrala studiestödsnämnden, CSN) administers study assistance, as well as the other types of state financial aid for students. It relates to a legal framework that is different from the social insurance. The board’s decisions in study assistance matters may not be appealed, but cases may be re-examined to the advantage of the individual student.

The issue of family allowance was raised in the inter-war period when Sweden, like many other countries, experienced a baby bust and a situation which called for concern of the well-being of the population. Decreasing fertility rates coincided with the emergence of the modern welfare state. In the 1930s more ambitious social policy and an emphasis on social engineering were attempts to solve social problems. The family allowance program, launched in the late 1930s, targeted government funds to families promoting their well-being in order to encourage childbearing. There was a highly ideological debate preceding the program as to whether family allowances should be universal or selective, general or means-tested, in cash or in kind, and who should be the recipient of the benefit. To begin with benefits were selective, means-tested and often in kind but later on this changed and the design of family allowance came to follow the Swedish model with universal, general cash benefits. For example: in 1937, a child allowance for poor mothers was introduced. In 1938 state grants to subsidize meals at school cantines for children from low-income families were introduced (SFS 1938:244). In 1948, the child allowance was extended to all families with children under 16 (SFS 1947:529). Family allowances were commonly given to the mother. It should be noted that tax reductions have never been a feature of Swedish welfare provision. Given the progressive taxation rate, such a design would disproportionately benefit high income earners and that is clearly not the aim with redistributive social policy.

The most relevant legislation for family allowances in place today is the Social Insurance Code (introduced in 1962, SFS 1962:381). There are three areas of family allowances: general allowances such as child allowance; insurance schemes such as parental benefits and temporary parental benefit; and means-tested allowances such as housing allowance and care allowance for disabled children. The gender equality bonus and municipal child-raising allowance are also examples of financial support to families. Family allowances related to maternity protection and leave scheme for parents will be discussed in these sections instead of here.

All families with children living in Sweden receive financial support in the form of child allowance (barnbidrag). A flat rate (tax-free, currently 115 euros per month) is automatically paid to the mother from the month following the birth of a child, or later, if, for example, the child moves into Sweden (The allowance is based on registration, no application is needed. SFS 1973:449). The child allowance is paid up to and including the quarter of the year when the child turns 16. If the child is enrolled in full-time education (typically upper secondary school) the National Board of Student Aid (Centrala studiestödsnämnden) will pay a study allowance. If this is the case, it is paid automatically without the need to apply. A supplementary allowance for additional children is paid (flerbarnstillägg) to families with two or more children (SFS 1981:702). Also of a general character, the state contributes a fixed sum to cover the costs of adoptions of foreign children given that they are adopted through an authorized adoption organization (SFS 1988:463).

Among the means-tested allowances, the housing allowance is for households with children living at home (either permanently or temporary, see SFS 1988:786 and SFS 2005:465 respectively). It may also be paid to young adults (younger than 29). The amount paid depends on housing costs, the size of the home, household income and number of children living at home. Parents are liable to contribute to their child’s maintenance according to their ability. When a child lives with only one parent, the other parent shall pay child support to support the child. There is maintenance support for single parents (underhållsbidrag), which guarantees that children whose parents are living apart receive a certain allowance even when the parent liable to pay maintenance does not comply. It is paid to the parent with whom the child is living or directly to the child. Child support to children can be established by agreement between the parents or by court. If the child is 18, child support is an agreement between the him/her and the parent who does not live with the child. The parent liable to pay maintenance is obliged to repay the costs to society, wholly or in part. Maintenance support can be provided as full maintenance support, supplementary allowance or maintenance support in connection with alternating residence. There is also a care allowance for parents of a child who has a disability or a severe illness (both temporary and long-term). The care allowance is supposed to cover the extra costs entailed by the illness/disability or if the child needs extra supervision. 

The municipal child-raising allowance is another form of family allowance (SFS 2008:307). It is a voluntary form of financial support to families, which the municipalities can choose to introduce, finance and administer. The child-raising allowance provides greater opportunities for parents to stay at home and look after their child while the child is between one and three years of age. The benefit is conditional on that the parents have used 250 (or more) days of parental leave and that they do not enroll the child in full-time preschool. The maximum amount paid is very low (circa 325 euros per month). 

Family allowances are adjusted with regular intervals, some even change annually, taking into consideration changes in the price base amount (which reflects inflation). This is intended to adjust the value of the allowances to the cost of living. When it comes to housing allowances and child support, the benefits may be increased or decreased depending on the household’s income.


Marriage is a socially or ritually recognized union or legal contract between spouses that establishes rights and obligations between them, and between them and their children. The definition of marriage, as well as the wedding ceremony, varies according to context, across time and space. Marriage is commonly an institution in which interpersonal, and often sexual, relationships, are acknowledged.

While marriage during 1850-1950 has been characterized as changing from institutional to compassionate through cultural change with a greater emphasis on romantic love and emotional satisfaction, associated with the demographic transition and industrialization, there was further deinstitutionalization and individualization of marriage during the latter part of the twentieth century. During this period, and particularly after 1970, Sweden, together with other Western countries experienced dramatic changes with respect to demographic behavior, not least the demographics of marriage, with the age of first marriage increasing, fewer people marrying, and more couples choosing cohabitation over marriage. These trends were both early and prominent in Sweden and the other Nordic countries. They are seen as related to social change such as increased levels of education, female labor force participation and more flexible gender roles together with changes in ideals and values in general but especially regarding family life and sexual relations. With this marriage became a choice rather than a necessity with the expectation that union formation should be fulfilling to the individual and could be exited once it did not meet up with needs.

Contrary to expectations, marriage trends in Sweden reversed at the very end of the 1990s. The increase in marriage rates was not due to compositional changes in the characteristics of the Swedish population, neither was it due to postponement/recuperation of age at marriage nor a reversal of female independence or values (such as secularization). The increase in marriage thus seems to reflect real behavioral change related to marriage become fashionable.

The legal framework surrounding marriage and union dissolution was thoroughly reformed in 1915 when the Act respecting entry into and dissolution of marriage replaced the marriage code of 1734 (which made a wedding ceremony compulsory). Civil marriage had been introduced in 1908. Today, marriage in Sweden is governed by the Marriage Code of 2009 (SFS 2009:253). Marriage in Sweden is often compared with a partnership. As of May 1 2009, marriage is gender-neutral, i.e. couples of different sexes (a man and a woman) or of the same sex (two men or two women) can both enter into marriage and the same rights apply to all. Previously, same-sex marriage was known as a registered partnership. Couples who are in a registered partnership may turn it into marriage through an application to the Swedish Tax Agency (Skatteverket), which deals with all aspects of population registration in Sweden.

Marriage is entered into either through a ceremony in a church or religious community, for example, the Church of Sweden, or through a civil marriage ceremony.

The law considers 18 years or above to be the marriageable age for both man and woman. As of July 1 2014 the opportunity to apply for a lowering of the age at marriage is abolished. This amendment is strict and without exceptions. Marriages between persons of direct blood relation (i.e. first- and second-grade relatives) are prohibited by law. Polygamy is prohibited by law, i.e. a person who is already married or a registered partner may not enter into a new marriage.

In order to get married in Sweden one must go through a procedure for investigation into possible impediments to marriage (hindersprövning), handled by the Swedish Tax Agency. This involves checking that there are no legal obstacles to the marriage and issuing a certificate to confirm this. Within four months from the date of issue of the certificate, the couple can file an application for marriage. At this point they may decide on what will be their surnames. After the marriage has been performed the Tax Agency has to be contacted again with a document from the ceremony, in order for the couple to obtain the marriage certificate. 

The Swedish marriage code also applies to non-Swedish couples who wish to get married in Sweden and to couples where one of the parties is not registered as resident in Sweden. Foreign citizens wishing to marry in Sweden must also be allowed to get married in the country where they are citizens or live permanently in order to be allowed to marry in Sweden.


The right to divorce in Sweden dates back to the sixteenth century. Then the only grounds for divorce that were accepted by the cathedral chapter were abandonment or infidelity. Violence was not considered sufficient reason until 1937, but the chapter could order temporary separation of the spouses to allow some time apart for the dispute to settle. From 1734 matters of marital dissolution were to be handled by a local court of law instead of the cathedral chapter, but while these courts relied on the same principles as did the Church, it meant little effectively. In 1810 the accepted grounds for divorce became slightly more lenient, but to go through with a divorce entailed a process of about two years. The married couple had to stay intent on divorce through multiple warnings from the church, abide with questioning by the cathedral chapter, fines and temporary separation, before they could apply for divorce. In 1860, the ordinance respecting disagreement in marriage stated that divorce should be tried in court in a worldlier manner and that it should go without fines. The reform was preceded by a debate on women’s exposure to violence in marriage, acknowledging the threat which the wife battering habit posed to childrearing and to marriage itself. After the ordinance of 1860, the court could issue an order of protection, forbidding the spouses to visit each other during the period of temporary separation preceding divorce, thus providing protection against an abusive spouse. Some steps in the divorce process were removed and thereby the reform reduced the length of the divorce process considerably, especially in cases where spouses were in agreement about divorcing. After divorce there was a remarriage waiting period until the property settlement was finalized.

In 1915 a new divorce law was passed that permitted bilateral no-fault divorce. This implied that when both spouses agreed that ‘a long-term and permanent breakdown’ characterized their relationship, the court could grant a legal separation for one year without further investigation. After the separation period, either of the spouses could file for a final divorce. It also implied that divorce could be attained without the stigmatization of a court investigation into the private matters behind the wish to divorce. The new law also stated that divorce could be granted without a preceding formal separation, if the spouses had lived apart for at least three years. Before this legal change the majority of divorces were filed by men but after the introduction of no-fault divorce women were filing for most of divorces. The fact that no-fault divorce was introduced already in 1915 makes Sweden (together with its Nordic neighbors) stand out as progressive compared to other European countries and the US.

An important feature of the 1915 divorce legislation was that the law stipulated that the household’s economic resources should be evenly divided between the spouses upon divorce. This improved wives’ rights to joint property and gave them the right to sue for alimony. The obligation to pay alimony was extended beyond temporary separation to the period following upon divorce. The court could only grant alimony if one (either) of the spouses was unable to support him-/herself. Alimony could, however, never be granted to the spouse who was responsible (liable) for the divorce.

The most recent legal reform in Sweden was passed in 1974 (SFS 1973:645) after several years of intense public debate during the 1960s when conservative values concerning gender, sexuality, marriage and divorce were liberalized, resulting in several legal reforms concerning women’s rights, abortion, contraception and sex education. The new divorce law can also be seen as an adaption to a society where women’s economic and social roles had changed fundamentally. Through increased female labor force participation, there was a shift from a single- to a dual-breadwinner model during the 1960s and early 1970s. Welfare state expansion, such as increased social protection of lone mothers, made individuals independent of the family for economic and social security. This was accompanied by attitudes favoring the individual’s right to divorce over keeping families intact. 

In the new divorce law, all fault criteria were removed and it was stated that the individual reasons behind divorce should be regarded as a strictly private matter. It thus became possible to file for divorce on an individual basis, without giving any cause for the wish to divorce. The process was made speedier; the mandatory period of legal separation was removed, yet the law stated a waiting period of six months if the spouses had joint custody of a child under 16.

The 1974 divorce law is still in place today.


For long, marriage was the marker for first partnership. In recent decades cohabitation has become the common form of forming first partnerships in most Western European countries. Sweden and the other Nordics were forerunners in this respect with a tendency among young people to cohabit already in the 1970s. While there was some concern that cohabitation would be the end of family formation, cohabitation simply replaced some of the marriages of past periods and did not affect the propensity to form unions. Largely, cohabitation tended to be a temporary phase preceding marriage or dissolving. What distinguished cohabitation in Sweden from that in other countries in the 1980s was that the unions were more marriage-like and longer-lasting. From the 1990s and onwards, cohabitation also became a context considered suitable for childbearing. Today 50% of all children are born out-of-wedlock and the overwhelming majority of first births occur within cohabiting unions.

While marriage is defined in the law, involves a ceremony and registration with the authorities, cohabitation is less well-defined and is not well regulated. Legislation reacted to social change across the Swedish population by introducing the Act respecting cohabiting partners' common residence in 1987 (SFS 1987:232). But unlike marriage legislation, this law basically only regulated the common home of a cohabiting couple (i.e. unwed man and woman who live together in marriage-like manner), what is included in there and what happens to the common home in case of a separation or death. The law was not regulating cohabitation as such. The law first applied only to heterosexual couples, but later on (in the same year) legislation was extended to apply also to cohabiting homosexual couples (SFS 1987:813).

The Swedish term “sambo” is short for ”sammanboende”, which means cohabiting or living together with connotations to unmarried persons living together as a couple, in a joint household. The term is similar to the concept of Common Law husband/wife. Despite its prevalence being “sambo” in a cohabiting union is not considered as a civil state in a strict legal sense, although it is commonly acknowledged among the general public as well as for administrative routines.

The rights of cohabiting partners are limited, much less regulated compared to those of married partners. Being married gives spouses more legal rights that in the case of cohabiters mainly apply to property. The common home of a cohabiting couple is considered the only joint property given that it has been set up for the purpose of the couple living there together. In case of a separation, the joint home of a cohabiting couple is divided in a similar manner as if they had been married. But if the joint home of cohabitants has been set up before the union, if it has been acquired for strict recreational purposes or if one of the partners has begotten the dwelling as a bequest or inheritance, the dwelling is not considered joint property. In rare cases of separation, the court may, however, decide that the partner most in need of the common home will be the one who keeps it but this mainly applies if there are young children in the household. Because there is no divorce, the request for division of property among cohabiters must be submitted no later than one year after the relationship has ended. In addition, unmarried cohabiting couples, as well as spouses, are able to conclude a preliminary agreement on division of property when the cohabitation is about to end. Cohabiters may agree through a written agreement (signed by two parties) that the division of property rules shall not apply to them.

Unlike married spouses, cohabiters do not inherit each other. In case of death, the assets of the deceased are passed on to his/her children or to surviving parents and siblings. In order for cohabiters to become the beneficiaries of each other’s property, they need to set up a joint will and testament.

Unlike among married spouses, fathers are not automatically considered legal guardians of children born within cohabiting unions. Cohabiters who have children therefore need to establish fatherhood in a legal sense through a process with the local authorities. Through this process both parents are made legal guardians of the child, which affects everyday life and facilitates the child’s right to inheritance. This administrative routine appears highly anachronistic today given the prevalence of unmarried childbearing. It is a legacy of the 1920s when local authorities tried to handle out-of-wedlock childbearing and the support of illegitimate children and unwed mothers. Children born within cohabiting unions commonly have the same family name as the father unless the parents have agreed on another surname.

Because of its unregulated nature, cohabitation and the break-up of cohabiting unions has different implications in terms of economic support than marriage.

The contemporary Swedish cohabitation law is officially referred to as Act 2003:376. The Act applies to two unmarried persons of the same or different sex, living permanently together in a relationship and sharing the same household. The law is intended as a protection regulation for the financially weaker party and no registration of the relationship takes place.

Until 2009 registered partnership for same-sex couples was regulated through the Act on Registered Partnership (SFS 1994:1117). The 1994 Act treated registered partnership more in the same way as marriage than the laws respecting cohabitation (exceptions including special treatment rules based on sex and certain international legislation concerning marriage, adoption and guardianship). While same-sex couples gained access to marriage in 2009, the repealed Partnership Act continues to give rise to legal effects in respect of couples who entered into a partnership before the end of April 2009 and have not converted their partnership into a marriage since then. The deferred community of property system applies as regards registered partners.


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Legal ordinances (Svensk författningssamling):

  • SFS 1920:405 
  • SFS 1938:244
  • SFS 1939:171
  • SFS 1945:844
  • SFS 1947:1
  • SFS 1947:529
  • SFS 1954:266
  • SFS 1962:381
  • SFS 1973:449
  • SFS 1973:645
  • SFS 1974:473
  • SFS 1976:580
  • SFS 1976:381
  • SFS 1977:630
  • SFS 1980:620
  • SFS 1981:702
  • SFS 1987:232
  • SFS 1987:813
  • SFS 1988:463
  • SFS 1988:786
  • SFS 1994:1117
  • SFS 1994:1568
  • SFS 2000:1375
  • SFS 2001:141
  • SFS 2001:160
  • SFS 2003:376
  • SFS 2005:465
  • SFS 2006:442
  • SFS 2008:307
  • SFS 2008:313
  • SFS 2009:253


Introduction, Childcare provision, Family allowances, Marriage and Cohabitation
Maria Stanfors
Department of Economic History and Centre for Economic Demography at Lund University

Parental leave (incl maternity protection) and Divorce
Cecilia Larsson
Department of Economic History and Centre for Economic Demography at Lund University

Maria Stanfors
Department of Economic History and Centre for Economic Demography at Lund 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: Sweden" (Information provided by Maria Stanfors & Cecilia Larsson). Available at: https://splash-db.eu [Date of access].