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Making Child Marriage Harder in Virginia

Virginia CodeEfforts to Restrict Marriage of Minors Advance Through Virginia Legislature

Many spouses going through separation and divorce lament that the laws of Virginia make it much easier to get married than they do to get divorced. A divorce proceeding requires a reason to want to end the marriage and in most cases the spouses must be separated for more than a year before their divorce can be finalized. This leads to the not-uncommon situation where spouses must live separately for longer than they were married before getting their divorce!

In contrast, to get married in Virginia, two eligible parties must only obtain a marriage license and perform a ceremony. There are no required blood tests or number or witnesses to validate a marriage. The age requirement for marriage in Virginia is sixteen for both parties. However, if either party is under eighteen, parental consent must be given by the parent or legal guardian. There are also exceptions for parties under sixteen if the female is pregnant or if the underage applicant has no parent or legal guardian. The Virginia legislature, however, is considering a change to the age requirement for marriage to make it more difficult for children to get married.

Child marriage is often viewed as an issue exclusive to developing countries. Historically, and statistically speaking, the vast majority of child marriages occur between an adult groom and a child bride. Numerous studies conclude that child marriage is detrimental to girls across their health, education, and economic well-being. Child brides face increased mortality rates, can suffer from serious and chronic health problems, are less likely to be advanced academically, and are more likely to experience domestic abuse.

While the practice is certainly more prevalent outside of the United States, there is a not insignificant number of child marriages performed stateside. In Virginia, for example, there have been more than 4,500 marriages with a minor spouse since the year 2000. As awareness of the practice here at home increases, more stories about these child marriages have come to light, such as the recent one out of Middleburg, Virginia, where a 50-year-old man married a 15-year-old girl to shut down a police investigation into their relationship. The marriage of the 15-year-old would have required parental consent, but supporters of the proposed law argue that in many cases parental consent is really the work of parental coercion.

Senate Bill 415 proposes to replace the option of “parental consent” to the marriage of a minor with the requirements already in place for a minor to emancipate. Making this change would require the minor to demonstrate that they should be viewed as an adult in the eyes of the law before allowing him or her to enter into marriage. The proposal would amend the procedures for emancipation if the request is made based on their intention to marry. The court would be required to make written findings that it is the minor child’s own will to enter into the marriage, that both parties are mature enough to decide to marry, that the marriage would not endanger the safety of the minor, and that legal emancipation is in the best interests of the minor.

Opposition to the proposed bill comes mainly on the grounds that it would remove parental rights by removing the option of parents to consent to their minor child’s marriage. Supporters counter by reiterating that parental consent can often mask coercion on the part of the parent or that the pregnant minor may have been forced into a sexual relationship in the first place.

Additional opposition to the new law is offered with a dismissal of child marriages as one that simply doesn’t exist in the United States. But that criticism doesn’t address the merits of the proposed law, instead arguing that because the practice is uncommon it is not a large enough issue to warrant legislation.

If enacted, the proposed changes would greatly reduce the risk that a minor is being coerced into a marriage, while still providing a path for a minor child to enter into a marriage. Similar legislation has been proposed in New York, Michigan, Maryland and other states across the country.

The family law attorneys at Livesay & Myers, P.C. are experienced in all aspects of marriage and divorce, and provide representation to clients in Fairfax, Fredericksburg, Ashburn, Manassas, and throughout Northern Virginia. Contact us today to schedule a consultation.