In the United States, marriage laws are set by each individual state, not at the federal level. This means that marriage age requirements can vary widely across the country. Most states allow minors to marry under certain circumstances, often with parental consent or judicial approval. However, some states currently have no statutory minimum age for marriage, leaving the door open for child marriages to occur.
What are the risks of child marriage?
Child marriage, defined as marriage before the age of 18, has been shown to have detrimental effects on young people. According to UNICEF, child marriage compromises girls’ rights to health, education, and safety. Girls married young often drop out of school and are at higher risk of domestic violence. Child marriage also disrupts girls’ childhood and adolescence by thrusting them into adulthood before they are physically and emotionally mature. It limits their opportunities for career and economic advancement, keeping them trapped in a cycle of poverty.
Why is there no minimum age in some states?
In the past, early marriage was more widely accepted in the U.S. As recently as the 1950s, many states allowed children as young as 12 to get married. Over time, social norms have shifted towards later marriage, and most states have updated their laws to establish 18 as the minimum marriage age. However, some states still lag behind in reforming their statutes. Opposition to setting a floor for marriage age often comes from parents who want their pregnant teens to marry or from religious groups who support adolescent marriage. Some argue that flawed laws simply haven’t been updated, rather than representing an ongoing endorsement of child marriage.
States with no minimum marriage age
According to research from Unchained at Last, an advocacy group working to end child marriage, the following states currently have no statutory minimum age for marriage:
- New Mexico
- West Virginia
This means that minors of any age could theoretically marry in these states. However, other marriage requirements may still create barriers, such as parental or court approval. Let’s take a closer look at the marriage laws in each state.
In California, the general age of consent for marriage is 18. However, minors can marry with parental consent and court approval. The statute does not specify any minimum age limit for the marriage of minors, leaving the determination up to the courts.
Massachusetts has a minimum marriage age of 18 for most minors but makes an exception if minors obtain court approval. The law does not indicate any lower age limit on these court-approved marriages.
Michigan allows minors of any age to marry with parental consent and court approval. The law indicates no floor on the minor’s age.
In Mississippi, the general marriage age is 21 but minors can marry at 18 with parental consent. Minors younger than 18 can marry with court approval and no statutory minimum age applies.
New Mexico statutes allow marriage at age 18 without parental consent. Younger minors can marry with authorization from a judge and the law does not specify any lowest permissible age.
Oklahoma has a minimum age of 18 for marriage but makes exceptions for minors aged 16-17 with parental consent and minors under 16 if court approved. The law sets no floor for court-approved marriages.
Under West Virginia law, generally individuals must be 18 to marry. However, children under 18 can obtain marriage licenses with parental consent and as long as the female is pregnant. No minimum age is specified.
Wyoming’s marriage statutes set the general marriage age at 18. With parental consent, males at 16 and females at 15 can marry. The law also allows marriage under 18 if authorized by court order, with no lower age limit set.
States moving towards a minimum age requirement
In recent years, several states with no minimum marriage age have seen legislative efforts to establish one. While these bills have not yet passed, it demonstrates growing momentum for reform.
A bill was introduced in California in 2017 to set a minimum marriage age of 18, even with parental or court consent. The legislation did not advance but showed initiative to align with other states.
In Massachusetts in 2017, a bill proposed banning marriage involving minors under the age of 18 in all cases. The effort did not succeed but indicated consideration of the issue.
Michigan bills introduced in 2016 and 2017 attempted to establish 18 as the minimum marriage age in the state. The bills stalled but pointed to possible future changes.
New Mexico saw legislative initiatives in 2015 and 2017 seeking to prohibit marriage under age 18. The measures failed but signaled growing opposition to child marriage.
Oklahoma legislation proposed in 2020 sought to set 16 as the minimum age for marriage in the state. Previous efforts in 2017 and 2018 did not advance but continued the public policy debate.
In Wyoming in 2020, a bill was introduced to establish 16 as the minimum marriage age, though it did not pass. The action demonstrated initiative to reform state law.
Nationwide, momentum is growing for a minimum floor on marriage age across all states. Some developments include:
- By 2018, 25 states adopted legislation limiting marriage to legal adults aged 18 or older.
- In 2018, Delaware and New Jersey became the first states to fully ban marriage under 18 without exceptions.
- In 2022, Connecticut passed a law prohibiting marriage below age 16 and further restricting 16- and 17-year-olds from marrying.
- Multiple bills have been introduced in Congress to establish 18 as the national minimum marriage age, though none have yet passed.
These changes indicate a broader acknowledgement that child marriage carries risks and should be prohibited or strictly limited. However, work remains to be done in states like California and Massachusetts where minors still face few marriage age restrictions.
Arguments for setting a minimum age
Advocates calling for statutory minimum marriage ages highlight several arguments:
Protecting children’s rights and well-being
Setting a floor that prohibits marriage before adulthood allows children to fully experience childhood without the burdens of grown-up roles. It shields minors from the risks of early pregnancy and intimate partner violence.
Early marriage often forces adolescents to drop out of school. Minimum age requirements allow youth to complete their education before taking on marital responsibilities.
Preventing forced marriages
In the absence of a clear minimum age, minors may get married due to coercion rather than choice. Firm age limits provide protection.
Reflecting societal norms
Most Americans believe child marriages should not occur. Statutory minimum ages bring outdated state legislation in line with prevailing social values.
Increasing global consistency
Setting 18 as the marriage age matches most U.S. states and the recommendations of major international organizations like UNICEF.
Arguments against minimum age requirements
Opponents of establishing a floor for marriage age raise counterarguments like:
Parents should have the authority to decide if their minor children can get married, rather than being constrained by governmental rules.
Some religious faiths encourage early marriage, so minimum age laws may infringe upon religious beliefs and practices.
Flexibility for unusual cases
Banning marriage under age 18 entirely prevents exceptions for teens who are pregnant, emancipated from parents, or exceptionally mature.
Regulating intimate relationships
Requiring court or parental approval for adolescent marriages allows state intrusion into personal romantic relationships.
Push to later marriages
Establishing 18 as the marriage age contradicts traditions of earlier marriage and may discourage marriages altogether.
Key factors driving state law differences
The variation between states often stems from a few key factors:
In states with strong conservative Christian backing, like Mississippi and Oklahoma, opposition to minimum marriage age laws has been greater.
Sparsely-populated rural states like Wyoming and West Virginia have seen less progressive efforts to curb child marriage.
Updating outdated marriage laws has not risen to the top of legislative agendas in some states like New Mexico.
Grassroots activism calling for minimum age laws has gained more traction in states like Delaware and New Jersey.
Recent data on child marriage in the U.S.
While child marriage has declined nationwide, it still persists at troubling rates according to data from recent years:
- Between 2000-2018, over 300,000 minors were legally married in the United States.
- The vast majority were girls wed to adult men, amplifying concerns around coercion and power imbalances.
- About 85% of marriages involved a minor girl and adult man.
- Almost 30% of minors who married before age 18 wed a spouse at least 4 years older.
- Minors as young as 10, 11, and 12 were granted marriage licenses in some states.
This ongoing occurrence of child marriage warrants scrutiny of state laws that fail to establish clear protections.
Table: Child marriage statistics by state, 2018
|State||Marriages involving minor||Minimum marriage age|
This state-by-state data shows thousands of minors still getting married annually, even where laws fail to establish clear marriage age limits.
In examining state laws on minimum marriage age, California, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, New Mexico, Oklahoma, West Virginia, and Wyoming emerge as concerning cases with no statutory floor. However, initiatives are underway to enact legislative reform. Setting a reasonable minimum age for marriage balances protecting adolescent rights with allowing some flexibility for unusual situations. As most Americans oppose the practice, there is a public policy imperative for states lagging behind social norms to update their laws accordingly. With growing activism andmomentum for change nationwide, the coming years may see the abolition of child marriage loopholes across even the most lenient states.