Chryssikos Law Firm

An End To Child Marriage?

On January 9, 2019, a bill was introduced in the Michigan House of Representatives to modify existing Michigan law to establish the minimum age to marry at 18 without exceptions effective January 1, 2020. Below is an article by James W. Chryssikos as appeared in the August/September issue of the Michigan Family Law Journal.

An End to Child Marriage?
By: James W. Chryssikos

As family law practitioners and members of the Family Law Section, our time is focused almost exclusively on representing clients in matters related to the dissolution of marriage. However, sometimes it is incumbent upon the Family Law Section to take a broader perspective and advance or support legislation that improves the lives of Michigan families. One such opportunity is an issue that is gaining a foothold in many states around the country – banning child marriage without exceptions.

Michigan’s “Secret Marriage Act”
Most states, including Michigan, have laws establishing the minimum age to marry at eighteen. However, in Michigan, a person sixteen years of age, but less than eighteen years of age, may marry with written consent of one parent or legal guardian of the underage person. With the age of consent being sixteen in Michigan, one might think that sixteen is the absolute minimum age for marriage. But Michigan, along with many other states, allows an exception for child marriage with approval by the probate court without any minimum age being established.
MCL 551.201(2) provides that

“the judge of probate may marry, without publicity, persons under marriageable age . . . if the application for the license is accompanied by 1 of the following: (a) a written request of all of the biological or adopting living parents of both parties, and their guardian or guardians if either or both of the parents are dead . . . (b) a written request of the parents or guardians of the party under marriageable age if only 1 party to the marriage is under the marriageable age.”

Commonly known as the “Secret Marriage Act”, this section of the Michigan Public Act 180, originally enacted in 1897, provides nothing in terms of a minimum age for marriages approved by the probate court. It also flies in the face of other laws purporting to establish a “minimum age for marriage”, particularly MCL 551.51, which purports to be “an act to prohibit the marriage of a person under 16 years of age and to declare the marriage void.” However, even Section 51 carves out an exception for marriages approved by the probate court under Section 201.

The U.S. State Department has decried child marriages in other parts of the world such as Africa and Asia, referring to all cases of child marriage as “child abuse” in 2010. The U.S. Senate unanimously voted to enact the “International Protecting Girls by Preventing Child Marriage Act of 2010”, which aimed to protect girls in developing countries. The bill never became law, failing to pass in the House of Representatives.

Despite the push to end child marriages in developing nations, until this year, laws remained in place in each and every state permitting some form of child marriage here in the United States with either parental and/or judicial approval. Ending child marriage, without exceptions, is a subject now being considered by a number of states. However, only two states, Delaware and New Jersey, have very recently passed legislation banning child marriage under the age of eighteen without exceptions.

Effects of Child Marriage
The New York Times published an article in June of this year, which gave the account of Dawn Tyree. Dawn Tyree began being molested by a family friend at the age of eleven. She became pregnant by this person, but instead of reporting the crime to the police, her parents decided instead that she should marry her rapist. Dawn was thirteen years old at the time of her marriage to the perpetrator, who was thirty-two years old at the time.
Dawn recounted the story of going to the courthouse and being asked, at age thirteen and pregnant, if she wanted to be married. Her answer, of course, was “yes”. Dawn’s parents opposed abortion and she was told that marriage was her only option, and that she needed to tell that to the judge. As Dawn explained years later,

“The marriage was a way to cover up the rape. The marriage was a way to keep me from being an unwed teen mother. The marriage was a way to avoid any child services investigation. The marriage was a way to avoid child neglect charges against my parents. The marriage was a way to keep my husband out of prison.”

Unsurprisingly, Dawn’s marriage did not stand the test of time and, by the age of sixteen, she was a divorced single mother with two young children.

According to 2010 Census data, more than 500,000 U.S. teens were married, divorced, separated, or widowed. Studies have shown that age at the time of marriage is pivotal to determining marital failure. “Of marriages entered before the age of eighteen . . . nearly seventy percent end in divorce. The earliest marriers, those adolescents who enter marriage in their mid-teens, experience marital failure rates closer to a sobering eighty percent.”

In addition to significantly higher divorce rates, studies show that individuals who marry at an early age are also more likely to discontinue their educational and career goals, earn lower wages, and are more likely to live in poverty. Women who marry before age nineteen are fifty percent more likely to drop out of high school and four times less likely to complete college than unmarried counterparts. Women who marry at an early age often develop more mental health problems and experience worse physical health than those who marry at a more mature age.

According to a 2011 study,
the most prevalent disorders were major depressive disorder, nicotine dependence, and specific phobias, but the researchers found the strongest association with antisocial personality disorder – the risk for women who married as children was nearly three times as a high as that of adult marriers.

By the Numbers
While statistics show that child marriages are declining steadily, it is by no means a relic of the past. In fact, one report indicates that from 2000 to 2015 more than 207,000 minors were married in the United States. According to the same report, which obtained records from forty-one states, 87% of the minors who were married during that time span were girls, while 13% were boys. Although the vast majority of the minors who were married in that time frame were between the ages of 16 and 18, at least 985 of those minors were 14 years of age, 51 of those minors were 13 years of age, and at least 6 of those minors who were married were as young as 12 years of age.

In Michigan alone, 5,263 minors were married from 2000 – 2015. In 2010, the child marriage rate in Michigan was 20 out of 10,000 marriages. Those numbers may not seem eye-popping compared with nearly 11,000 child marriages in Kentucky, more than 16,000 child marriages in Florida, or more than 40,000 in Texas during the same time period, but they clearly demonstrate that this is an issue that is worthy of action.

A Glimpse Ahead
In May of this year, Delaware became the first state to pass legislation ending child marriage without exceptions. New Jersey followed suit in June of this year. Other states considering similar legislation to ban or further limit child marriage include, but are not limited to, Ohio, Tennessee, Kentucky, New Hampshire, Arizona and Florida. But the devil is in the detail. Many of these bills being considered by other states still allow for 16 and 17 year olds to marry with parental consent, while others still allow for a court-approved marriage with no minimum age established.

Although Michigan is not presently among the states currently considering a legislative change to existing, and arguably archaic, child marriage laws, at the June meeting of the Family Law Council, the Council voted to authorize the Legislative Committee to look into this issue and possibly seek a legislative sponsor to propose a bill, or amending existing legislation, banning child marriages in the State of Michigan. These child marriage laws and exceptions to laws establishing a minimum age for marriage have roots in the preindustrial era. Such laws have no place in the modern world and continuation of such laws has proven to disproportionately impact young girls, and have serious and long-lasting consequences. This may be an issue to watch in the 2018-2019 legislative session.

10.0James W. Chryssikos