LEGISLATIVE WATCH WYOMING: Senate Approves Bill Establishing Minimum Age Requirement for Marriages
Lawmaker says bill helps protect against the exploitation of children
- Published In: Politics
- Last Updated: Feb 16, 2023
By Shen Wu Tan
Special to the Wyoming Truth
The Senate on Thursday advanced a bill that would set a minimum age limit for marriage in Wyoming.
Senators voted 23-7 for House Bill 7, also known as “Underage marriage-amendments,” which mandates that persons getting married must be at least 18 years old (except in a few cases) and prohibits marriages for those under the age of 16.
“It certainly is a problem; I think it’s probably well hidden,” Sen. Tara Nethercott (R-Cheyenne), who voted in favor of the bill, said about underage marriages. “But if you don’t believe that the marriage of a 14-year-old girl is not in some form exploitation because I assure you, it is not the fantasy of two teenagers who fall in love. It is much different and much more exploitive…. This body is committed to the protection of children from exploitation.”
The bill states that all marriages involving an individual who is 16 or 17 years old are “prohibited and voidable” unless a judge in the state approves the marriage and allows the county clerk to issue a license. Additionally, the legislation would void all marriages involving anyone under age 16, and forbid any person certified to wed couples in Wyoming from performing a marriage ceremony if either individual is under age 16.
If either person is 16 or 17 years old, a marriage license cannot be issued without verbal or written consent of a parent, guardian or other individual who takes care of the 16- or 17-year-old. At least one witness must offer testimony to prove written consent. A county clerk can refuse to issue a license if either person is 16 or 17 years old and a parent or guardian has not given consent.
For marriages involving someone who is 16 or 17 years old, the parents or guardians can ask any judge of a court of record in the appropriate county of residence for an order that authorizes the marriage and orders for the issuance of a marriage license.
If it becomes law, the bill in its current version would apply to all marriages on and after the act goes into effect.
Bill opposition and number of underage marriages in Wyoming
On Thursday, senators also approved an amendment from Sen. Cale Case (R-Lander) that would allow two people who are under age 18, but are at least 16 years old, to marry without parental consent and approval from a judge if they meet the requirements for right to contract or have received a declaration of independence.
Due to the amendment, the bill heads back to the House for concurrence, “action by which one house agrees to a proposal or action that the other house has approved.” If the House approves the changes, the legislation will be passed along to Gov. Mark Gordon. Once Gordon receives the bill, he will have three days to either sign the legislation into law, veto it or allow it to pass without a signature.
Two lawmakers spoke out against the bill, commenting that underage marriages don’t seem to be a problem.
“I have repeatedly asked what’s the necessity for the bill,” said Sen. Larry Hicks (R-Baggs), who voted no on it. “Do we have rampant, rampant 15- and 16-year-old marriages within the state of Wyoming?”
Hicks cited figures he obtained from a government agency, claiming that around 200 16-year-olds got married in 1978 compared to an average of six in the last decade.
“I think if you look at the vital statistics, twice in the last 12 years have we had that occurrence where somebody under the age of 16 actually got married,” he continued. “But even if you look at the 16- and 17-year-olds, and you look at the trend on that vital statistic, this is a self-correcting problem in the society that we live in today….It just looks like to me that this bill is a solution for a problem that doesn’t exist, and what problem does exist out there is already correcting itself.”
Last year, there were 4,207 marriages licensed in Wyoming, of which 16 included one spouse under the age of 18, according to provisional figures provided to the Wyoming Truth by Guy Beaudoin, deputy state registrar for the Wyoming Department of Health’s Vital Statistics Services.
An average of around 4,200 marriage licenses were issued in the state annually over the last 11 years. An average of 20 marriages each year involved a spouse under 18, Beaudoin informed the House revenue committee in January.
Wyoming is one of eight states that currently doesn’t have a minimum age requirement for marriage. The others are Washington, California, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Michigan and West Virginia, according to data from Unchained At Last, a nonprofit organization aimed at ending forced and child marriage in the United States.