Many Americans might be surprised to know that in half of the country, there is no legal minimum age requirement to marry. In New Jersey, couples can marry as young as 16 years old with parental consent. Under the age of 16, they can marry but also need the approval of a judge. Certain religions and cultures find child marriage acceptable and even a tenant of their beliefs. What happens when an underage spouse wants a divorce? Because marriage is considered a contract and only adults are legally permitted to enter contracts, there is no simple answer. If a child wants to divorce their spouse, they often need an adult’s help to do so.
According to the PBS documentary series, Frontline, there were more than 200,000 child marriages across 14 states between 2000 and 2015. While many of these marriages are entered into freely by two people who love each other, others are not so healthy. One nonprofit group, Unchained at Last, offers free counseling and assistance for underage girls forced into marriage. The organization’s director suggests the problem lies in the gap between the age girls can legally marry and the age of majority or adulthood, which is 18 years in most states.
Many argue that when girls are legally allowed to marry before they are adults in the eyes of the law, they are more likely to be forced to marry or endure an unpleasant or even dangerous marriage. Research shows that child marriage is associated with higher rates of domestic violence. This is another reason advocates are working to give married minors access to a way out through divorce.
Difficulty Obtaining a Lawyer
For married minors, there are many obstacles to divorce. They often have difficulty finding a divorce lawyer experienced in child marriage. They need access to a court and judge who will consider the case and allow the minor to participate in their own divorce proceedings. If not, they need a trustworthy adult to act on their behalf, called a “guardian ad litem.”
One state recently updated marriage statutes in this regard. In New York, 17-year-old married minors can initiate a divorce without a guardian ad litem. Time will tell if other states follow suit. In New Jersey, protesters gathered outside the office of State Assemblyman, Gary Schaer, who recently blocked the vote of a bill that would raise the minimum age to marry in the state to 18 years. Governor Phil Murphy vowed to sign the bill before Schaer’s objection earlier this month delayed the vote.