Marriage & Divorce in the US

Information, statistics and tips

In order to get married in the US, the bride and groom must usually be at least 18 or 16 if they have parental consent, although ages vary according to the state.

The minimum age for marriage with parental consent ranges from 14 for a girl in Alabama, Kansas, Massachusetts, Texas and Utah, to 18 for a male in several states. Without parental consent it may be as high as 21 for men and women.

In most states, marriage licences are issued by local city or county clerks and an application must usually be made in the municipality where either the bride or the groom lives. A witness, aged 18 or older, may need to accompany the couple at the time of the application.

In a few states, marriage partners must undertake a compulsory ‘Wassermann (blood) test’ to show that they’re free from venereal and other communicable diseases before a marriage licence is granted. In most states, a blood test isn’t required - see list here . Results of a blood test must be submitted with the application and there’s usually a waiting period of two to seven working days before a marriage licence is issued.

The marriage license

After the marriage license is issued, the couple must have a marriage ceremony, which can be performed by a religious clergyman or by a judge or ‘justice of the peace’. The completed license (signed by the person conducting the ceremony and witnesses) is then returned to the town hall to be registered. Common law marriages don’t require a blood test, licence or ceremony and are legal in 11 states (Alabama, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Montana, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas and Utah) and in the District of Columbia. They essentially consist of a man and woman living together as man and wife sharing a common name.

You can get married practically anywhere and in any surroundings, e.g. in a shopping precinct, in a car, on roller-skates, under water, in the air (e.g. in a hot-air balloon or while parachuting or skydiving), on a roller coaster, in a theme park, in a hot tub on the back of a limousine (in Las Vegas of course) . . . even in the nude! Gay marriages are commonplace although they aren’t recognised legally except in the state of Vermont, where you can register a ‘domestic partnership’ granting many of the same rights as a marriage certificate.

The issue of gay marriage has become quite heated recently, with several states passing laws against the practice and there’s now a move to amend the US Constitution to define marriage as ‘a relationship between a man and a woman’. Nonetheless, many churches perform ceremonies for gay and lesbian couples on request and some employers allow unmarried household partners coverage in benefits plans.

Nevada (with no blood test or waiting period) is the most popular state for quickie marriages, which are the second biggest industry after gambling. Las Vegas has 280 churches and 120 wedding chapels (some 30 of which are open 24 hours a day). Weddings in Las Vegas stretch credulity and vulgarity to breaking point and why anyone would want to get married there at all is a complete mystery, as it’s one of the least romantic places on earth. The only people they won’t marry are drunks and people of the same gender. (Be careful, as some countries don’t accept Las Vegas weddings as valid if you try to register your marriage at your home country consulate!)

Despite the apparent enthusiasm for marriage, more people are remaining single and becoming divorced than ever before. This led to more liberal divorce laws in many other states. Today, the US has the highest divorce rate in the world (over 50 per cent of American marriages fail, although the statistics are misleading, as many people have a number of failed marriages).

Divorce in the US

Americans divorce and re-marry so often that in some states you can renew a marriage licence if you remarry again within a certain period. Two-thirds of states have a ‘no-fault’ divorce law, making it unnecessary to prove that a marriage partner has committed an act giving grounds for divorce (thus depriving private detectives of much lucrative work). This allows either partner to seek a divorce simply because he or she no longer wishes the marriage to continue. More than a million children experience parental divorce each year; almost one in three American children are born out of wedlock and more than one in four families are single parent families.

If you’re contemplating divorce, the most important consideration is to hire a good divorce lawyer (preferably a divorce specialist, for example this one: attorney in San Diego . This is especially important if the divorce will be contested and there’s significant property and the legal custody of children at stake. Because of the high probability of divorce in the US, many (rich) marriage partners insist on a (decidedly unromantic) marriage contract or prenuptial agreement, limiting a spouse’s claims in the event of a divorce. All states have an alimony law.

Foreigners living in the US who are married, divorced or widowed should have a valid marriage licence, divorce papers or death certificate. These are necessary to confirm your marital status with the authorities, e.g. to receive certain legal or social security benefits. Foreigners married abroad come under the marriage laws of the country where they were married, although they may be subject to property and child welfare laws in the state where they’re resident when it comes to getting a divorce.

This article is an extract from Living and Working in America. Click here to get a copy now.

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