Wedlocked is a Teen Vogue series about child marriage in the United States that examines the history of the practice and its modern reality, as all 50 states have laws with provisions that that allow people under 18 to marry.
In the last two years, more than 12 states have debated bills that ask the same question: Should child marriage be legal in the United States? So far, every state has conditionally answered, “yes.”
What’s often neglected is an important follow-up question: Can a minor who marries get a divorce?
According to divorce lawyer Nancy Zalusky Berg, the answer to that is no, not directly. A minor can’t file for a divorce because they’re not considered old enough to do it. That’s because marriage is considered a contract, and most laws stipulate that only adults can enter into contracts. So, if a minor wants to change their marriage contract, they need an adult to help them do it. “Our laws around marriage operate under the presumption that everyone’s an adult,” Berg explains to Teen Vogue. That’s a conflict when you consider that, between 2000 and 2015, there were at least 207,468 child marriages that occurred in 44 states, according to figures from PBS’s Frontline.
As a divorce lawyer practicing in Minnesota for 35 years, Berg has witnessed the impact of forced marriage on minors. As the current President of the International Academy of Family Lawyers, which works in partnership with Tahirih Justice Center, a national advocacy organization that works against child marriage, she’s working to help push legislation to end child marriage. She explains that the law often doesn’t provide clear direction for minors who marry, and that makes divorce more complicated in most states. “The law follows culture,” Berg explains. “It doesn’t lead it. So typically, we have statutes on the books that we are struggling to bend to the current culture.”
Fraidy Reiss, whose nonprofit organization Unchained At Last provides free assistance to girls who are forced into marriage, says the problem lies in the difference between the age when girls can marry and the “age of majority” when minors reach legal adulthood, which is 18 in most states. That’s why she is fighting to make these ages equal. “Before somebody becomes a legal adult, he or she can easily be forced into a marriage or forced to stay in a marriage,” Reiss tells Teen Vogue.
One dominant reason that advocates are concerned with married minors having access to divorce is because data shows that child marriage leads to higher risk of domestic violence. If a minor enters a marriage and there’s abuse, any hurdle to exiting that marriage has the potential to prolong the abuse, which, Berg says, doesn’t mean as much to the courts as you might think. Unfortunately, she says many states are no-fault divorce states and don’t recognize domestic violence as grounds for divorce.
“What that means is that fault can’t be a basis for any of the actions in the divorce proceedings,” Berg says. “So even if I have a client who was forced into a marriage and suffers significant consequences as a result, it’s not relevant in the divorce proceedings.”
Trevicia Williams, a former child bride from Texas, tells Teen Vogue that after she was married at 14, she wanted an annulment within the first 30 days. “I had enough wherewithal and grit to pick up the phone book and call the Texas Department of Health and Human Services and seek out resources in the community that would facilitate my desire to get a divorce,” she says. That phone call provided her with a list of organizations to help expedite the divorce process and helped her “gain the things that I needed to be self-sufficient.”
“Women call [Unchained At Last] in all different situations,” Reiss explains. Some are hoping to stop a marriage from happening, while others have fled their marriages and are in hiding. Many feel trapped by the law that prevents them from divorcing for many reasons, including the struggle of finding a lawyer while underage.
So how does a minor secure a divorce? Berg says it always requires an extra step, where a court would consider the case and a judge would decide if the minor can participate in their divorce proceedings, or else an adult would be appointed to act on behalf of the minor to make decisions in their best interests. That person is known as the “guardian ad litem” and is different from an attorney, who is the advocate for the minor. The “guardian ad litem” instead acts in the place of the minor. From there, the divorce would proceed as it would for anyone, with either the minor or guardian advancing the motion.
The practice of child marriage has been scrutinized by lawmakers in several states recently, but in New York, where marriage statutes were recently updated, there was additional concern intentionally given to making it clear how divorce would work for minors married under the new law.
According to Amanda Norejko — who serves as the Matrimonial and Economic Justice project director for Sanctuary for Families, an organization that was involved in writing New York’s statute — lawmakers considered the other known limitations minors face under the law that adults don’t. “Under the new statute, a 17-year-old should be able to initiate a divorce action, which they would not have been able to otherwise without a guardian ad litem,” Norejko tells Teen Vogue.
But there are still barriers in place in New York state, including additional steps that adults don’t have to deal with. “The idea was to remove any legal barriers to these minors being able to access assistance through the court system or under any other New York state laws,” Norejko says, who agrees with Berg in that matrimonial laws are still too complex for minors to easily navigate without assistance of counsel.
To that end, Unchained At Last provides training sessions for attorneys who agree to work with clients pro bono. And as some states begin to advance their laws, Berg says it’s possible for new laws to set a precedent for updated statutes in other states. That’s why her organization, International Academy of Family Lawyers, as well as Norejko’s organization, Sanctuary for Families, have partnered with activist groups like Tahirih Justice Center to add more perspective to the child marriage debate.
“Most people understand why marriage at 12 is a problem, but some people think there are a lot of really mature 17-year-olds. [They think] if she’s really mature and she’s marrying her 18-year-old boyfriend, what’s the big deal?” Reiss says. “All the basic steps that [a girl] could take, that she’d be able to take if she was 18, even a day before, she cannot take. Therefore, marriage before 18 or before adulthood is really dangerous.”
If you are facing or fleeing a forced marriage or know someone who is, contact the Tahirih Justice Center’s Forced Marriage Initiative to get help at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit preventforcedmarriage.org to find out more.