Child marriages soon to be illegal in state of Washington

Feb 23, 2024, 4:49 PM | Updated: 8:41 pm

Wedding bouquet...

Wedding bouquet. (Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

The legal age to get married will be 18 after both chambers of the Washington State Legislature passed a bill outlawing child marriage.

The bill will now go to the governor who is expected to sign it into law. It would take effect June 6 and apply only to marriages on that date and after.

HB 1455 seeks to close loopholes that currently allow for the marriage of minors under certain circumstances. (A PDF of the original bill can be viewed here.)

Under current law, people as young as 17 can obtain a marriage license with the written consent of a parent or legal guardian or through judicial approval.

However, critics argue that this system leaves minors vulnerable to coercion and exploitation.

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The new law, originally introduced during the 2023 session, renders any marriage involving a person under 18 void, regardless of parental or judicial consent.

It also removes the ability of judges to waive the age requirement and eliminates the option for 17-year-olds to marry with parental consent.

“It’s not that much of a burden to wait until they’re 18 compared to the potential for exploitation and abuse that exists in a system where a judge can have them be married when they’re younger than 18,” Sen. Derek Stanford, D-Bothell, told fellow lawmakers before the vote.

Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, offered an amendment that would allow judges to decide the necessity for a marriage in limited circumstances.

“I support the bill overall. It’s just that it seems in these very, very limited circumstances, there ought to be some relief from this total ban,” Padden said.

The amendment went down to defeat in a voice vote.

Supporters of the bill contend that minors, particularly young girls, are often forced into marriages against their will, with grave consequences for their physical, emotional, and financial well-being.

They argue that marriage should not be used as a tool to circumvent laws against child rape and abuse.

“I think when we want to end child marriage in Washington, we should end child marriage in Washington, period, no exceptions,” said Sen. Manka Dhingra, D-Redmond.

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Concerns have also been raised about the lack of autonomy granted to married minors. While they may be considered emancipated, they are unable to access legal resources such as hiring lawyers, seeking protection orders, or filing for divorce.

This, critics argue, further exposes them to potential harm and exploitation within the confines of marriage.

However, there were voices of opposition to the proposed legislation. Some argue that individuals should have the freedom to choose whom they marry, regardless of age.

They suggest that instead of outright banning child marriage, laws should be amended to grant emancipated minors greater legal rights and protections.

The bill now goes to Gov. Jay Inslee for his signature.

Matt Markovich often covers the state legislature and public policy for KIRO Newsradio. You can read more of Matt’s stories here. Follow him on X, formerly known as Twitter, or email him here.

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Child marriages soon to be illegal in state of Washington