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Forms made by and for the government that concern an individual or family/household often – usually in one of the first questions – ask for the family/relationship status of the applicant. The predefined answers reflect legal statuses for tax and subsidy purposes. In Germany, for instance, there are these categories:

          married     “partnered”
single    divorced    “dispartnered”
          widowed
                       ^ (same-sex)              

Please note, there is no option for couples living together without being formally married. (Religious weddings are not recognized by law and churches require a proof of secular marriage prior to any wedding ceremony.) I assume the situation is similar in other countries.

If you ask someone about their relationship status informally, they will probably think of single vs. couple first, then maybe mention prior statuses for the former (was married, but got divorced or spouse died) or official recognition of the latter, perhaps highlighting that the spouse has the same sex as them if that makes a legal difference. That is basically just my guesswork, but this mental model mismatches the data model behind standard questionaries.

Striving for a user-centered redesign, how should a (non-interactive) form ask for relationship status if the answers are to be mapped to legal categories as in the list above?

  1. One question with exactly the options occurring in relevant laws.
  2. One question with all possible combinations, i.e. include “unmarried couple” or the like and probably more.
  3. Hierarchical questions, something like this:
    • Are you married?
    • If yes, does your spouse have the same sex as you?
    • If no, have you ever been married?
      • If yes, did your spouse die or did you divorce each other?
  4. Something else.

PS: Let’s assume the existence of children (common, adopted, foster …) was completely irrelevant.

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    Why do you think the provided example is wrong or not optimal. I'm asking because, if I had to see such a list, it would be pretty clear to me what choices I have to make. – Daniel Zahra Jun 1 '15 at 13:34
  • This list is similar to how Google or Facebook ask for a relationship status for a profile. Just a simple list of options, with catch-alls like "In a relationship" and "It's complicated" – mginn Jun 1 '15 at 14:08
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    @DanielZahra If I’m living with my partner and our kids, am I really supposed to tick the box next to Single and feel good about it? We just never got married. Alas, I could also live like that after having been married long time ago to someone else – that would change the legal implications but not the individual feeling. – Crissov Jun 1 '15 at 19:55
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    @Crissov , from a 'legal' point of that is how it will look. Co-living with someone regardless if you're in a relationship or not is not the same as being married. And by this I'm not saying it's nice, but do you want an option which says you're in a relationship but in all terms and purposes, it's the exact same as single? I don't find that redundant choices to be a good idea as some users will be confused and think that they are different. – Daniel Zahra Jun 2 '15 at 9:27
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    A lot of this depends on the country. In many places same gendered marriage is totally equal to traditional marriage so there would be no need to ask about that (which beyond the obvious equality reasons is good in that it lets people avoid having to declare their orientation on this kind of thing). In Sweden there exists a special 'sambo' (same abode) status for co-habiting couples which gives them a large chunk of the rights of married people. In other countries meanwhile traditional religious marriage is all that matters. – the other one Jun 2 '15 at 10:33
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Be careful what you're asking the user to provide.

The application in this case needs to map things to those legal categories. You may think you're asking "What is your relationship status?", but in this case the application really needs to ask "Which of these legal statuses applies to you?"

Because that's what you need to ask, that's what you should ask, and a set of radio buttons (or checkboxes in a print form) is entirely appropriate. You could use a physical layout to help group things, but should make it clear what you're asking. E.g.:

Which of these legal statuses best describes your situation?
[ ] Single
[ ] Partnered (same-sex marriage)      [ ] Married                 
[ ] Dispartnered (same-sex marriage)   [ ] Divorced                
[ ] Widowed
  • I’m not convinced the form or application should literally ask that question. It needs to reliably answer it, sure, but there have to be ways to do that without explicitly mentioning the legal data model to the user. – Crissov Jun 1 '15 at 20:01
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    If you have a legal requirement to collect this info, then that's what you have to collect. Otherwise, collect something else, probably allowing user-input (for example, none of those options correctly describes my relationship status). – Alex Feinman Jun 2 '15 at 17:05
  • I’m still reluctant to accept this answer. Would you support to change “Single” to “Never wedded”? I also like “marital status” instead of “relationship status”, see @theotherone’s answer. – Crissov Oct 8 '15 at 19:58
  • No. The statuses above reflect the ones given in the question. The idea is that they match the list of legal statuses precisely, because what you're really asking is "What legal status do you have?" This is very different than "what is your marital status". So "never wedded" is wrong; that is not one of the legal statuses. – Alex Feinman Oct 9 '15 at 13:55
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Marriage has both societal and legal connotations. If you're only interested in the legal connotations, then you need to be explicit in that in both the questions and the answers.

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I would definitely agree that legal (relationship) status is a nicer question than relationship status. It always makes me cringe a little to see the 'single' tick box on English language forms even though many people having to use that could have been with their partner for decades.

I recall seeing some forms that ask "What is your civil status?", which though not the clearest of questions does become obvious when you look to the possible answers.

"Martial status" is another possibility, again a little system oriented, but in this context that could be a good thing, makes it clear that this is a purely technical, legal question.

The best answer to me seems to be a if it isn't broke then don't fix it; The standard list of possible statuses and tick the one that applies, is fine.

Your idea of a hierarchical questioning form involves people potentially having to read multiple questions and tick multiple boxes.

A single question that keeps the most common replies in the primary position and groups related replies, reduces cognitive effort and pen/mouse usage.

The possible options should map to whatever is the legal situation in the country this form is designed for. We are speaking purely of a legal status here so it doesn't really matter if somebody is living with their partner if the country in question doesn't grant any rights at all to people in such relationships.

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