Let’s raise the legal age of marriage in Maryland

UPDATE: Maryland raised the minimum marriage age to 17 (which requires permission from a parent/guardian or the court), or 18 otherwise. The law took effect in October 2022.

Today I sent the following letter to the Maryland House Judiciary Committee, which is scheduled to hold a hearing on these bills tomorrow. Under current law in Maryland, marriage is permitted as young as age 15 with parental consent and evidence of pregnancy or childbirth, and age 16-17 with one or the other, and these exceptions are granted by county clerks rather than judges. By my calculations, from 2008 to 2017, based on the American Community Survey, the annual marriage rate for girls ages 15-16 was 5 per 1000 in Maryland, behind only Hawaii, Nevada, and West Virginia. HB 855 would raise the age at marriage to 18, while HB 1147 would establish an emancipated minor status, requiring review by a judge, under which 17-year-olds could marry. For more on the effort to end child marriage in the U.S., visit the Tahirih Justice Center site.

March 6, 2019

To the House Judiciary Committee:

I write in support of Maryland House Bill 855, concerning age requirements for marriage; and House Bill 1147, concerning the emancipation of minors.

My relevant background

  • I am a Professor of Sociology, and family demographer, at the University of Maryland, College Park, where I have been on the faculty since 2012. I also earned my PhD at the University of Maryland, College Park, in 1999, and I live in Silver Spring.
  • I have written two books and many peer-reviewed articles on family sociology, including on topics related to marriage and divorce, family structure, gender inequality, health and disability, infant mortality, adoption, race and ethnicity, and the division of labor.
  • I have served as a consultant to the U.S. Census Bureau on the measurement of family structure, and testified before Congress on gender discrimination.

My support of the bills

In general, the rise of the age at marriage and childbearing in U.S. have been positive developments for women and children, allowing mothers to devote more years of early adulthood to education and career development, which is beneficial to both adults and their children.

Very early marriage in particular is detrimental to women’s opportunity to finish high school. More urgently, research and service work shows that very early marriage is usually unwanted, coerced, or forced. Very young women should not be expected to protect themselves legally or socially from such impositions, which are usually from older men and dominant family members. Very early marriage often follows statutory rape or other sexual assault, compounding rather than mitigating the harms of these crimes against children. Rather than protect a young woman, very early marriage instead provides protection from scrutiny for her abuser(s), and makes state intervention on her behalf all the more difficult to accomplish in the following years. The privacy and discretion we bestow upon families has benefits, of course, but it also makes the family a dangerous place for the victims of abuse.

Research, including my own, unequivocally shows that very early marriage leads to the highest rates of divorce. I have written several papers on divorce rates in the United States (see references). For illustration, here I used the same method of analysis, and present only the relationship between age at marriage and incidence of divorce. As you can see from the figure, divorce rates are highest by far – estimated at 2.5% per year – for women who married before age 18. This is about twice as high as divorce rates for those who marry in their 30s, for example. (These estimates hold constant other factors; data and code are available here.) The evidence is very strong.

predicted odds of divorce by aam

I only reluctantly support increasing state restrictions on women’s freedom with regard to family choices, but in the case of marriage before adulthood I see the restriction as a protection from the exploitative behavior of others, rather than an imposition on young women’s rights.

At present in Maryland, exceptions allowing marriage before age 18 – based on pregnancy and/or parental consent – are granted without adequate legal review. Together, HB 855 and HB 1147 would set the minimum age at marriage in Maryland to 18, with an exception only for court emancipated minors of age 17. This would improve the state’s protection of young women from unwanted, coerced, forced, or ill-advised marriages without unduly restricting the freedom to marry for younger women (age 17), who may be emancipated by a court after a direct application and careful review of circumstances.

I urge your support for these bills. I would be happy to provide further information or testimony at your request.


Philip N. Cohen


Cohen, Philip N. 2015. “Recession and Divorce in the United States, 2008-2011. Population Research and Policy Review 33(5):615-628.

Cohen, Philip N. 2018. “The Coming Divorce Decline.” SocArXiv. November 14. https://osf.io/preprints/socarxiv/h2sk6. To be presented at the Population Association of America meetings, 2019.

7 thoughts on “Let’s raise the legal age of marriage in Maryland

  1. Thanks for sharing this. It is a great text. You say, “Research, including my own, unequivocally shows that very early marriage leads to the highest rates of divorce.” My reading of the literature is that although there is associational evidence, there is no causal evidence on early age at marriage leading to higher rates of divorce (saw more evidence showing that it leads to many other negative outcomes). We are presenting a poster at PAA 2019 on China where the reform was most significant — although the change is the other way around and it reduced the age limit from 25 to 20 so it would not really be considered making early marriage possible– and we found no effect on divorce. We also analyzed Gordon Dahl’s (2010- Demography) data on legal changes around the age of marriage to look at any divorce effect across the states in the US and we found none. I’d appreciate if you can point me any papers that you know on this question that uses causal methods. It is possible that we missed some key papers as we have been working on this as a side project.
    Best wishes,
    Berkay Ozcan


    1. Thanks. Right, it’s associational. I might say “leads to” for that. And obviously it’s not transhistorical or necessarily relevant to other cultural contexts because in many cultures there has been early marriage and no divorce at all.


  2. To me the most important issue is not divorce rates but evidence that early marriage is coerced. I would be interested in that information. As early marriage is typically tied to pregnancy, there is also the question of the alternatives at that point: abortion, delivering the child while unmarried, delivering the child while married. The argument that early pregnancy is a result of statutory rape is tautological depending on the age of consent. I’m not an expert, but at one point was involved as coauthor on a paper about child sexual abuse, and I’m pretty sure that in general the age difference between the younger and older person is what is most highly correlated with coercive sex, that young people who are within a year or two of each other’s age more often report that the sex was consensual and they are “in love,” although of course rape also happens among age mates. I know that statutory rape laws have in some cases criminalized sex among young people and that enforcement of these laws tends to be discriminatory. (I’ve known of cases in which both young people have been charged with raping each other.) I’m wondering how your arguments tie in with the literature about consensual sex among teens. If the sex was fully consensual and the young people want to marry, is that a worse outcome than preventing them from marrying and having a child outside marriage? Even if the marriage ends in divorce? I agree with your sense that the marriage in these cases may be coerced by the parents. But what are the outcomes for marrying vs not marrying among two young parents if they don’t abort?


    1. All good questions. I looked a little at the age differences but didn’t put it in because the samples are small, and others have looked at it with different data. (I recommend the Tahirih site for more info). However, in the ACS, among just-married women under 18 who had a baby in the last 12 months, 65% have a spouse over 20. Among those who didn’t have a baby in the last 12 months 60% have a spouse over age 20. (the sample size here is 700)

      On the issue of alternatives — if waiting a year or two until 18 to get married derails their relationship, then I reckon getting married before 18 probably wasn’t going to be a good idea. I can’t think of any substantive benefit to marrying before 18 (except in the case of military spouses) that couldn’t wait.


Comments welcome (may be moderated)

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s