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Child marriage in the United States

Child marriage in the United States refers to a marriage in the United States where at least one party is under the age of 18.[1]

Between 2000 and 2015, over 200,000 minors were legally married in the United States.[2] The vast majority of child marriages were between a child and an adult.[3][2] The majority of married children were girls.[2]

In the United States, marriage age laws are set by the various states, territories and federal district. As of January 2019, 48 out of 50 states have exceptions in their laws which allow children to marry in certain circumstances such as parental consent, judicial consent, pregnancy etc (In 2018, Delaware[4] and New Jersey[5] completely banned child marriage). Of those 48 states, 16 have no minimum age for children to marry. The federal district and territories all have similar legal exceptions which allow children to marry, except for American Samoa.[6]

From 2016-2019, 13 states raised their minimum age for minors to marry, or added a minimum age when they previously did not have one.[7]

In many cases, minors in the US are married when they are under the age of sexual consent in their area (which ranges from 16 to 18).[8] In some areas minors cannot legally divorce, leave their spouse, or enter a shelter to escape abuse.[9][10] In 2001 in Tennessee, three 10-year-old girls were married to men aged 24-31.[3] Meanwhile in Alabama, a 74-year-old man married a 14-year-old girl.[2] Both states have since set minimum ages, of 17[11] and 16 respectively.[12]


Age of marriage lawsEdit

In the United States, the laws on marriageable age are largely left up to the various state governments, territory governments, and the federal District of Columbia.

In the 50 statesEdit

The general age of marriage is 18 in every state, with the exception of Nebraska (19) and Mississippi (21).

However, every state except Delaware and New Jersey allows exceptions to their general age of marriage in one or more of the following cases:

  • Consent of a court clerk or judge (sometimes the consent of a superior court judge, rather than a local judge, is required)
  • Consent of the parents or legal guardians of the minor
  • If one of the parties is pregnant
  • If the minor has given birth to a child
  • If the minor is emancipated

So, given one or more of these exceptions, as of May 2019:

  • 17 states have no minimum age of marriage in some cases.
  • 2 states have a minimum age of 14.
  • 4 states have a minimum age of 15.
  • 20 states have a minimum age of 16.
  • 8 states have a minimum age of 17.

From 2017[13][14] to 2019[7][15][16][17][18][19][20][21] several states changed their law to set a minimum age, or to raise their minimum age higher. In 2018, Delaware and New Jersey banned child marriage with no exceptions. For more detailed information on recent changes in state marriage laws, see the section below.


While the general legal age for marriage in Massachusetts is 18, children may be married with judicial consent with no minimum age limit.[22] In the absence of any statutory minimum age, one opinion is that the traditional minimum common law marriageable age of 12 for girls and 14 for boys may still be in effect.[23][24] Unlike many other states,[25] in Massachusetts a child's marriage does not automatically emancipate the minor, or increase his or her legal rights beyond allowing the minor to consent to certain medical treatments.[26]

In the territories and federal districtEdit

Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States, and its people are American citizens. The general age of marriage in Puerto Rico is 21, however males aged 18 and females aged 16 can marry with exceptions.[27] In Guam, the general age is 18, but 16-year-olds can get married with the consent of at least one parent or guardian.[28] In American Samoa, since 2018, the marriage age is 18 for both sexes; in September 2018, governor Lolo Moliga signed into law a bill changing the marriage age for girls from 14 to 18.[6] In the District of Columbia the general age is 18, but 16-year-olds may marry with exceptions.[27] In the U.S. Virgin Islands the age of marriage is 14 for females and 16 for males.[29] In the Northern Mariana Islands males must be 18 to marry, while females can marry at 16 with parental consent.[30]

Comparison with other countriesEdit

Critics have pointed out that laws regarding child marriage in the United States compare unfavorably to laws regarding child marriage in other countries. For instance, in 2017, Human Rights Watch pointed out that Afghanistan has a tougher law on child marriage than parts of the United States: in Afghanistan the minimum marriage is 15, and that only with permission from their father or a judge; otherwise it is 16.[31] As of that date, in 25 US states there was no minimum marriage age at all if one or more of the grounds for exception existed; this number has now decreased to 18.[32]

Causes and consequences of child marriageEdit

Forced marriage and sex traffickingEdit

In some cases, child marriage may happen (either legally or informally) and constitute a forced marriage, often in the context of sex trafficking.

Legal status of a married minorEdit

In many states, minors automatically achieve emancipated status once they get married [25] and therefore are theoretically considered adults, so that they can file for a restraining order, get a divorce, and benefit from social services.[33] However, in practice such minors may still encounter difficulties, as many institutions do not deal with youth under 18, or require parental consent.

If minors are not emancipated, they may find themselves locked into the marriages, unable to leave or divorce an abusive spouse.[9][26] About 80 percent of teenage marriages end in divorce, but many minors locked in a marriage contract must wait years before they are old enough to be able to legally end the marriage.[9] Massachusetts is one such state where minors are not automatically emancipated upon getting married.[26]

Underage marriage and sexual consentEdit

In the United States, the age of sexual consent ranges from 16 to 18 depending on state, territory/district or federal law.

In some states, it is possible for a minor to legally marry even if they are below the age of sexual consent in that state. Between 2000 and 2015, at least 200,000 minors were legally married in the US. 86% of these marriages were to an adult. About 5% of the minors were aged 15 and under meaning they would be under the age of sexual consent anywhere in the USA.[2] State laws on age of sexual consent and age of marriage are very inconsistent. In some cases, judges who approve underage marriages are approving a marriage between a rapist and their victim.[34]


National statisticsEdit

Statistics released by the Pew Research Center show that nearly 5 in every 1,000 15–17 year olds in the United States are married.[35]

Unchained At Last, an organization dedicated to ending forced and child marriage in the United States, found that more than 167,000 children were married between 2000 and 2010.[36] Based on the correlation between population and incidence of child marriage, they estimated that nearly 248,000 children were married in the US during that time.[36]

Between the budget years 2007 and 2017, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services received 3.5 million immigration petitions, resulting in 8,686 approvals for people in marriages or engagements where one or both members of the couple was still a minor at the time of the petition. [37]

State statisticsEdit

Child marriage is generally more common in the Southern United States.[35]

According to Pew Research Center, the highest incidence of child marriages is in West Virginia, Texas, Nevada, Oklahoma, Arkansas, California, Tennessee, and North Carolina.[35]

According to Frontline and Unchained At Last, the states with the highest rates (not incidence) of child marriage in 2010 were: Idaho, Utah, Arizona, Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, West Virginia and Missouri. Meanwhile the states with the lowest rates were Delaware, New Jersey, Montana, Indiana, North Dakota, Ohio, New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. However, data was not available for 10 states including California, North Carolina, Georgia and Oklahoma.[2]

  • In Florida, 16,400 children, some as young as 13, were married from 2000-2017, which is the second highest incidence of child marriage after Texas.[9]
  • In Texas from 2000 to 2014, almost 40,000 children were married.[38][12]
  • In the state of New York, more than 3,800 children were married between 2000 and 2010.[39]
  • In Virginia between 2004 and 2013, nearly 4,500 children were married according to the Tahirh Justice Center.[40]
  • In Alabama there was over 8,600 child marriages from 2000 to 2015, the fourth highest amount of any state. However, child marriage in Alabama showed a large decline in that time. In 2000, almost 1,200 children married, but by 2014 it dropped to 190.[12]
  • In Ohio from 2000 to 2015 there were 4,443 girls married aged 17 and younger, including 43 age 15 and under. Among those were three 14-year-old girls, one of whom married a 48-year-old man.[41]
  • In Arkansas from 1999 to 2019 there was 8,200 girls and 1,300 boys married as minors.[42]

Age of participantsEdit

Unchained At Last found that only 14% of the child marriages conducted from 2000 to 2010 were between two children marrying each other[3]. In most cases, child marriages are to adults aged 18-21, however at least 31% were to an adult 21 or older.[36]

In over 400 cases, the adult was aged over 40. And in 31 cases, they were over 60. In 2010 in Idaho, a 65-year-old man married a 17-year-old girl. In Alabama, a 74-year-old man married a 14-year-old girl, though the state has since raised their minimum age to 16.[2]

According to Frontline, who looked at almost 200,000 cases of child marriage from 2000-2015:

  • 67% of the children were aged 17.
  • 29% of the children were aged 16.
  • 4% of the children were aged 15.
  • <1% of the children were aged 14 and under.
  • Overall there were 51 cases of 13-year-olds getting married, and 6 cases of 12-year-olds getting married.[2]

According to Unchained At Last, the youngest girls to marry in 2000-2010 were three Tennessee 10-year-old girls who married men aged 24, 25 and 31 in 2001. The youngest boy was an 11-year-old who married a 27-year-old woman in the same state in 2006.[3]

Poverty and rural areasEdit

Child marriage researcher Nicholas Syrett said "some all the evidence indicates that girls in cities don’t get married young, that girls from middle class or wealthy families, don’t get married young. This is a rural phenomenon and it is a phenomenon of poverty.”[2]

Race and genderEdit

U.S.-born black girls are about 1.5 times more likely to marry underage than U.S.-born white girls.[43]

Young females are more likely to be married than young males.[1] According to statistics released by the Pew Research Center (based upon the American Community Survey) 55% of those married at ages of 15–17 are female;[35] According to a Frontline article, 87% of the minors who got married in 2000-2015 were girls.[2]

Country of birthEdit

An article in The Conversation, citing a 2016 book by child marriage researcher Nicholas Syrret, said that U.S.-born white children of U.S.-born parents are more likely to marry underage than immigrants to the U.S. or the children of immigrants. This was true even in the 1920s at the height of immigration. This shows that child marriage is not a recent phenomenon, and it is not something that has only been introduced by recent immigrants.[43]

However, a 2018 study by Alyssa Koski and Jodi Heymann found that immigrant children were more likely than U.S.-born children to have been married; prevalence among children from Mexico, Central America and the Middle East was 2-4 times that of children born in the United States.[44]

The same study also found that approximately 6.2 of every 1,000 children surveyed had ever been married. Prevalence varied from more than 10 per 1,000 in West Virginia, Hawaii and North Dakota to less than four per 1,000 in Maine, Rhode Island and Wyoming. It was higher among girls than among boys (6.8 vs. 5.7 per 1,000), and was lower among white non-Hispanic children (5.0 per 1,000) than among almost every other racial or ethnic group studied; it was especially high among children of American Indian or Chinese descent (10.3 and 14.2, respectively). Only 20% of married children were living with their spouses; the majority of the rest were living with their parents.[44]

Recent changes to lawsEdit

Federal lawEdit

In 2013, the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act mandated that the US Secretary of State must "establish and implement a multi-year, multi-sectoral strategy to end child marriage".[45]

U.S. TerritoriesEdit

American Samoa

In 2018, girls' age of marriage was raised to 18, putting it in line with that of boys. In September 2018, governor Lolo Moliga signed into law a bill changing the marriage age for girls from 14 to 18.[6]

U.S. StatesEdit


In 2003, Alabama raised the minimum age for marriage (ie: with exceptions) from 14 to 16. A similar bill had previously failed to pass in 2001.[12]


In April 2018, Arizona passed a law which raised the minimum age to 16, and stipulated the following conditions: must be approved by a superior court, must have either parental consent or an emancipated minor, the older party must not be more than 3 years older than the younger party.[46]


In April 2019, Arkansas passed a law to raise their minimum age of marriage to 17 with parental consent. Previously the age of marriage was 17 for boys and 16 for girls with parental consent, and there was no minimum age for a pregnant girl to marry. The bill was sponsored by Democrat Vivian Flowers and signed into law by Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson after being approved by the Arkansas General Assembly.[42]


In California, in 2017, a bill to that would have ended child marriage (by raising the minimum age to 18) ran into opposition from legislators, the American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood.[47]

Since 1 January 2019 legally requires the parents and partners of minors wishing to marry, to meet with court official separately to determine if there is any coercion. Additionally, minors will now have to wait 30 days to get married, unless they are 17 and have completed high school, or one of the partners is pregnant. However, there is still no minimum age for children to marry, if these conditions are met.[48]


On 1 October 2017, Connecticut passed a law raising the minimum marriage age to 16, as well as requiring both parental and judicial consent for minors to marry. Prior to this there was no minimum marriage age in Connecticut so long as a judge consented.[49]


In May 2018, Delaware became the first state to completely ban child marriage. The marriage age in Delaware is now 18, with no exceptions. Prior to this, Delaware had no minimum age for marriage with parental consent and a judge's approval.[4]


In early 2018, Florida passed and signed a law to amend its marriage laws,[50][7] after having received intense media attention for its lax child marriage law and the high toleration of the practice.[51] Since July 1, 2018, the minimum marriage age is 17, and 17-year-olds need both parental and judicial approval and may not marry anyone more than 2 years older.[7] The new law was passed after sustained lobbying from a former victim of child marriage, Sherry Johnson.[52]


In May 2019, the Georgia General Assembly passed a bill and the Governor of Georgia Brian Kemp signed a bill to raise the marriage age explicitly from 16 to 17, must be emancipated minors, must have completed a premarital education course, and cannot marry anyone more than four years older than themselves. The new law goes into effect on July 1, 2019.[53][54]


In February 2019, a bi-partisan anti-child marriage bill was voted down 39-28 by the Idaho House of Representatives. The bill would have made it illegal for anyone under 16 to get married, and for 16-17 year olds it would have required the consent of parents, a judge, and the minor themselves. All those who opposed were Republicans. Idaho has the highest rate of child marriage in the United States.[55]

Reps Bryan Zollinger and Julianne Young voted against, citing their opinion that judges should not be involved in marriages, and that parental consent was sufficient. Rep Christy Zito complained that the bill would make it harder for people to start families if they conceive a child underage, compared to abortion which is legal for minors in Idaho with permission from one parent or a judge.[55]


In March 2018, Kentucky amended its marriage laws. After several failed attempts at restricting child marriage,[56] a redrafted bill was introduced, passed all stages of the Kentucky Legislature, and was signed by the Governor of Kentucky on 29 March 2018. The new law sets a minimum age of 17, with judicial approval. And the 17 year old cannot marry a person more than 4 years older.[57]


In July 2018 Missouri raised the minimum age for marriage from 15 to 16.[58]

New Jersey

Since June 2018, the New Jersey child marriage ban bill was signed into law by the Governor of New Jersey Phil Murphy and went into effect immediately to implement a clear minimum age of 18 with no exceptions.[59] This makes New Jersey the second state to completely ban child marriage, after Delaware.

In May 2017, a similar bill was vetoed by Governor Chris Christie due to "religious concerns".[60]

New Hampshire

Since 1 January 2019, New Hampshire passed a law and signed by Governor Chris Sununu in 2018, legally raising the minimum marriage age to 16 with judicial approval.[61]

New York

In 2017, New York state raised its marriage age to 18, allowing marriage at 17 in special circumstances with parental and court consent.[62] Prior to this law, the state allowed marriage in certain cases from 14.[62]


In 2019, Ohio raised the minimum marriage age to 18 for both parties, but allows an exemption for 17-year-olds to marry if they have juvenile court consent, go through a 14-day waiting period and the age differential between the two is not more than four years.[41]


In Tennessee, until 2018, there was no minimum marriage age with judicial consent. In 2001, courts allowed three 10-year-old girls to marry. In 2006, an 11-year-old boy was allowed to marry.[63] In March 2018, a proposed bill to end child marriage in Tennessee was killed.[64] The bill was revived due to political pressure, passed, and signed into law in May 2018 by Governor Haslam, preventing anyone younger than 17 from marrying in Tennessee.[11]


In 2017 Texas raised their marriage age to 18, though they kept an exception allowing emancipated minors aged 16-17 to marry.[38]


On March 25th, 2019, the Governor of Utah, Republican Gary Herbert signed a law which raised the minimum marriage age from 15 to 16, with parental permission. The law also makes it illegal for a 16 or 17-year-old to marry someone who is more than 7 years older than them.[65] The law passed the Utah House of Representatives 55 to 6, with 14 abstentions. It was described as a bipartisan effort, with a majority of Republicans, and all Democrats voting in favour. All abstentions and votes against were Republicans. called it a "watered-down" version of a law proposed in 2018 by Democrat representative Angela Romero which would have raised the age from 15 to 18 with no exceptions.[66]


In 2016, Virginia changed its law to set 18 as a minimum age, and 16 in special circumstances with judicial approval; prior to that date, there was no minimum age in the state. [67]

Other initiatives to end child marriageEdit

  • Released in 2016, the US Global Strategy to Empower Adolescent Girls[68] lists reducing child, early and forced marriage as a vital goal.[36]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b "Child marriage". UNICEF. Retrieved 2017-02-21.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Tsui, Anjali; Nolan, Dan; Amico, Chris (July 6, 2017). "Child Marriage in America: By the Numbers". Frontline. Retrieved September 17, 2017.
  3. ^ a b c d Baynes, Chris (8 July 2017). "More than 200,000 children married in US over the last 15 years". The Independent. Retrieved 24 October 2017.
  4. ^ a b "Delaware becomes first US state to fully ban child marriage". CNN. 2018-05-12. Retrieved 2018-09-17.
  5. ^ "New Jersey governor signs law banning underage marriage". 22 June 2018.
  6. ^ a b c "Governor Moliga signs into law bill to increase marriage age for girls". Radio New Zealand. 2018-09-12. Retrieved 2018-09-19.
  7. ^ a b c d "New Florida Laws: Marriage Age, Opioids, Criminal Records". USNews. 2018-06-30. Retrieved 2018-09-17.
  8. ^ Jeltsen, Melissa (2017-08-30). "Grown Men Are Exploiting Loopholes In State Laws To Marry Children". Huffington Post. Retrieved 2018-09-19.
  9. ^ a b c d Amanda Parker (October 24, 2017). "Worse than Weinstein is the exploitation of Florida girls". Sun-Sentinel. Retrieved 2017-11-04.
  10. ^ Nicholas Kristof, "An American 13-Year-Old, Pregnant and Married to Her Rapist", New York Times, June 1, 2018
  11. ^ a b "Gov. Bill Haslam signs law banning Tennessee marriage of minors under 17". The Tennessean. Retrieved 2018-05-31.
  12. ^ a b c d "Child marriage is still legal in Alabama, but on the decline". 9 August 2017. Retrieved 20 September 2018.
  13. ^ "Connecticut General Assembly". Connecticut General Assembly.
  14. ^ "Texas Legislature Online - 85(R) History for SB 1705".
  15. ^ "18RS - Legislative Record Online". Retrieved November 23, 2018.
  16. ^ "Arizona HB2006 - 2018 - Fifty-third Legislature 2nd Regular".
  17. ^ Legislature, Delaware. "Bill Detail - Delaware General Assembly".
  18. ^ "Tennessee HB2134 - 2017-2018 - 110th General Assembly".
  19. ^ Malo, Sebastien. "New Jersey law gives momentum to U.S. efforts to ban child marriage".
  20. ^ "Missouri SB655 - 2018 - Regular Session".
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  55. ^ a b "This bill would have ended child marriage for those under age in Idaho. The House voted it down". The Idaho Statesman. February 28, 2019.
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  68. ^ "United States Global Strategy to Empower Adolescent Girls" (PDF).