A surprising amount of minors are marrying — many to partners 40 years their senior — and many Americans mistakenly believe that the minimum age for statutory marriage is 18. While the minimum marriage age in most states is indeed 18, every state allows exceptions.
These two most common legal loopholes (pages 6 and 7) have allowed children as young as 11-years-old to marry in the last 10 years. Certain states have significantly higher rates than others (page 5).
1. A large number of children were married in the last 15 years
Over 200,000, that is. The allegations against former Senate candidate Roy Moore brought the conversation of child marriage center stage. However, plenty of activists have dedicated their voices to urge legislators to raise the of consent to marriage.
Regardless, parental consent makes it possible for minors to marry in all 50 U.S. states.
Next: These were the youngest girls and boy to marry.
2. The youngest children married were 10-years-old
The youngest documented girls to marry in the U.S. were all 10-years-old. All three lived in Tennessee and married men aged 24, 25, and 31 in 2001. Two Democratic lawmakers in Tennessee — one senator and one representative — introduced a bill that would close the legal loophole allowing these children to wed (page 7).
Alaska, Louisiana, and South Carolina granted marriage licenses to children aged 12, while 11 other states allowed 13-year-olds to marry. The youngest documented boy to marry was an 11-year-old who married a 27-year-old woman in 2006. The two were also married in Tennessee. Out of the 200,000 children who married, 13% were male.
Next: It’s not minors marrying minors, either.
3. 86% of the children were married to legal adults
Most of the children married a partner aged 18 to 29: 60% were 18 to 20-years-old. One of the largest age gaps was a 14-year-old bride who married a 74-year-old man in Alabama. The state later raised its minimum age to 16. Out of the oldest adults who married minors, the majority (368) were in their 40s, while 31 were 60 and older.
Attorney Jeanna Smoot called “a large difference an automatic red flag,” but countered that “a small age difference is not an automatic green flag.”
Next: Here’s why some believe childhood marriage is still happening.
4. Some blame family income and location for the abundance of child brides
Nicholas Syrett, M.D., author of American Child Bride blames poor backgrounds for breeding the minors’ marriages. “Almost all of 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.”
A 2011 National Survey found that some low-income families will force their children to marry in order to gain economic status through the union.
Next: The states with the highest child marriage rates.
5. Kentucky, West Virginia, and Idaho have the highest rates
While child marriage was once a common phenomenon, some Southern states have the highest rates nationwide. These include Alabama, Kentucky, and West Virginia. Idaho and other states, such as Wyoming and Missouri, don’t have a legal age floor for marriage with parental consent.
These are only among the states that have shared statistics. A Frontline study didn’t receive data from California, Georgia, Maine, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania or the District of Columbia.
Next: The second most-common loophole allowing child marriage.
6. Loopholes allow judges to waive the age restriction
Most states require both partners to be at least 18-years-old — legal adults — to get married without judicial approval. This is where the common misconception that 18-years-old is the “statutory minimum marriage age” comes from. For 10 states, all it takes is judicial approval of the marriage or pregnancy to drop this minimum marriage age.
Twenty-six states don’t even have an age “floor” by statute. This would protect children from marrying even if a judge grants approval, as was the case with the 10-year-old marriages we discussed previously.
Next: The most common exception that allows child marriage.
7. Another loophole in place allows parental consent
The most common exception for child marriage is “parental consent.” Most states will allow minors 16 and older to marry with their parents’ signature on a marriage license. If the minor in question is pregnant, there are cases where they don’t even need parental consent.
As The New York Times points out, “one person’s ‘parental consent’ can be another’s ‘parental coercion,'” and state laws rarely require an investigation into the child marriage. Parents site religious beliefs and traditions, protecting “family honor,” and control over their child’s sexuality/behavior as their motive behind the marriage.
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