Lawmakers Set New Ages for Marriage

 

In Kansas, the impetus was a 14-year-old pregnant girl who married her 22-year-old boyfriend. In Georgia, it was a 37-year-old woman who married her son's 15-year-old friend and then bore his child. Both times, the older newlyweds landed in jail for having sex with a minor. 

Their stories spurred legislators in Georgia and Kansas this spring to change their marriage laws to prevent teens from marrying so young. 

But raising the legal marrying age for teens too young to vote or even drive proved challenging as legislators struggled with the possible effects on abortion rates, welfare rolls, citizens' privacy and the nature of marriage itself. 

Georgia settled on a minimum age of 16 provided a judge approves while Kansas set the floor at 15 under the same conditions. Kansas' new minimum age is younger than Kansas's governor recommended and still younger than the vast majority of states, which set a minimum age of 16 with a parent's permission. But the age standard brings Kansas in line with its neighbor Missouri. 

State laws make various exceptions for when a teen can marry before the legal age of adulthood at 18. The state with the lowest marriage age is New Hampshire, which allows 13-year-old girls and 14-year-old boys to marry although parents can annul their children's marriages until the children reach 18, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. 

Until the story of 37-year-old Lisa Lynnette Clark marrying a 15-year-old boy in Georgia made headlines last November, Brandon Balch of Boynton Beach, Fla., had no luck lobbying lawmakers to close a loophole in Georgia law that allowed teens under age 16 to marry if there were a pregnancy. 

Balch took up the cause after his 13-year-old daughter presented a Georgia judge with a pregnancy test and won permission to marry her 14-year-old boyfriend. 

Balch said his daughter had a miscarriage shortly after the ceremony. But the marriage changed his daughter's legal status. She was now considered an adult, costing him his chance in court to try to win custody of her from his ex-wife. 

The Florida man said lawmakers were more receptive to his cause after they were "embarrassed on national TV" over the Clark case. Clark had married the 15-year-old boy in the driveway of a retired judge's house last fall. Normally, the boy would have been too young to marry, but Clark was pregnant. She delivered a baby boy while serving time for having sex with a minor. 

"My daughter's life fell apart. I think she's already divorced at age 15. It was a pretty good legal maneuver, but it ruined my life," Balch said in a telephone interview. He pointed to a 2002 study by the Center for Law and Social Policy that found young mothers who marry are more likely to have a second child quickly, to stop attending school, to get divorced and to experience domestic abuse.

Jamie Self, the director of public policy for the Georgia Family Council, said trying to convince the Legislature to revamp the marriage law and drop the pregnancy exception was harder than expected. "We really expected it to be absolutely uncontroversial," he said. "But some legislators were adamant about the illegitimacy issue. … By preventing someone who's 14 or 15 from marrying, you're guaranteeing illegitimacy for the child." 

Concerns also were raised that barring young teens from marrying might lead more young girls to get an abortion. 

Eventually, Georgia lawmakers settled on allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to tie the knot with the permission of either their parents or a judge. 

Kansas, too, retooled its marital code in response to a notorious case in which 22-year-old Matthew Koso of Nebraska took his pregnant 14-year-old girlfriend to Kansas to wed. 

The minimum marrying age in Nebraska is 16. Kansas law had no minimum age for marrying, as long as the youth's parents approved of the union. In Koso's case, the girl's mother permitted her to marry because of the pregnancy. 

Nebraska prosecutors charged Koso with sexual assault. He was convicted and sentenced to 18-30 months in prison. 

The ruckus led Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D) to call on legislators to require teenagers to be 16 before they could marry, even with parental consent. But lawmakers instead set the minimum at 15. Fifteen-year-olds now need judicial approval; 16- and 17-year-olds can get married with approval from a judge or their parents.

Sebelius' plan would've brought Kansas in line with Georgia and most other states; instead, Kansas is now one of 10 states that allow children under 16 to marry, according to NCSL.

Alabama, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire and Utah set lower limits when parents approve. Mississippi and South Carolina allow girls younger than 16 to marry, but not boys. California and Massachusetts specify no minimum age, but they require court approval for teens under 18.

State Sen. Kay O'Connor (R), who voiced concerns about setting the marriage age too high, said it made sense to give males who get young girls pregnant a way to take responsibility by marrying. 

"If you're 14 and you're pregnant, generally speaking, the young man who did it is running over the nearest hill. He knows it's statutory rape, and he's running. (In the Koso case) the 22-year-old young man was trying to do the right thing," she said. 

O'Connor said she objected to politicians dictating how people should handle a bad situation, although she said policies should be in place to make sure young girls weren't being raped.

"The problem with all of these discussions is we assume that we are smarter than the individuals involved," she said in a phone interview.

O'Connor raised concerns that too many barriers to marriage could lead to more single mothers on welfare or more abortions.

Balch, the Florida father, also tried to get his home state to tighten up its marriage laws. Florida requires 16- and 17-year-olds to secure their parents' permission before marrying. Pregnant teens 15 or younger can get married with a judge's approval.

Balch wants Florida to set an absolute minimum, but his efforts fell flat in Tallahassee this spring. Legislation passed the House and received a brief hearing - but no committee vote - in the Senate during the hectic last week of session. The senators said they needed more time to examine the proposal.

 
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