Since marriage is a lifelong commitment, at least in theory, states have an interest in putting age limits in place. This means that those who want to get married and don't have parental consent must be at least 18 (or the age of majority). State laws also allow minors to get married with the consent of their parents or, in rare cases, a court order. Marriage was not always restricted by age, however, and was often left up to local customs and parental arrangements.
Brief History of Marriage Age Limits
Historically, marriage age was none of the state or federal governments' business. Marriages were once more of a union of two families than a personal decision between two individuals (and still are in some countries). Parents and elder relatives often would marry off their children as soon as possible. The U.S. colonies followed English common law with respect to age of consent -- 12 for females and 14 for males -- but these limits were hardly enforced.
Every state adopted the English statutory age of marital consent of 21 following the American Revolution, 21 at the time. But courts continued to follow common law in practice. States began to enforce the statutes by end of the 19th century, rejecting common law. When the military draft age was lowered from 21 to 18 during World War II, marriage age laws also came under scrutiny and states began lowering the age of marital consent to 18.
The Uniform Marriage and Divorce Act, which was drafted in 1970 and adopted by most states in some form, established the following provisions (which are mostly followed today):
Today, the presumptive age of marital consent is 18 in nearly all states. The exceptions are Mississippi (21) and Nebraska (19). See Marriage Requirement Basics: Consent, Age, and Capacity to learn more.
Marriage by Those Under the Age of Consent
Most states allow minors as young as 16 to get married with parental consent, although Massachusetts allows females as young as 12 to get married with parental and judicial consent (14 for males). There is no marriage age limit in California as long as the parties obtain parental and judicial consent. Some states, meanwhile, don't allow marriage for any reason under a certain age.
For the court to grant a marriage license to a couple below the age limit for parental consent, there must be a compelling reason why it would be in their best interests. Typically, courts will grant marriage licenses to young couples either with a child or expecting a baby.
See State-by-State Marriage Age of Consent Laws for a comparison and Marriage License Information by State for a directory of state-specific resources. If you have additional questions about the legal requirements for marriage, including age limits, contact a family law attorney in your state.
Contact a qualified attorney.