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North Carolina reconsiders minimum age to marry

Published Tuesday, Aug. 17th, 2021

North Carolina has become known as a popular destination for child marriages -- a reputation lawmakers hope to change with a new piece of legislation. 


SB 35 would raise the minimum age to marry in the state from 14 to 16, and limit the age difference allowed in a marriage involving a minor to a maximum of 4 years. The bill passed a first vote in the Senate and House and needs one more approval from the Senate before being signed into law.


Currently, children as young as 14 can be married in North Carolina with permission from a judge if they’re pregnant or have recently given birth. Children as young as 16 can be married with the approval of an adult guardian or the court, and there are no restrictions limiting the age difference between parties.


The bill is a compromise to an earlier version that would have raised the minimum age to 18 with no exceptions -- something a growing number of states have done in the past few years. (Most recently, New York in August, Rhode Island in July, and Pennsylvania and Minnesota in 2020.) That bill, House Bill 41, was introduced in February but didn’t make it far. 


Discussion of SB 35 was on the calendar for Monday, August 16th, and its outcome should be available soon. 



  • Update:

SB 35 was ratified on 8/18 and signed into law by Governor Cooper on 8/26/2021. It becomes effective immediately and "applies to marriage
licenses pending or issued on or after [the day it becomes law.]"


See the amended marriage laws in our State Marriage Law Library: 

NC General Statutes § 51-2: Capacity to Marry

NC General Statutes § 51-2.1: Marriage of certain underage parties

NC General Statutes § 51-3: Want of capacity; void and voidable marriages



How common is child marriage in North Carolina? 


The International Center for Research on Women released a study in August of 2020 called Child Marriage in North Carolina: New Evidence and Policy Recommendations, which brought several startling facts to light.


They found that 93% of marriages involving a minor in North Carolina in 2020 were between a minor and an adult. The largest recorded age difference found in their analysis was a 40 year split, between a 57 year old man and a 17 year old girl. 


“Of the 70 marriages involving a minor age 15 or below,” the report reads, only “30% involved an age difference of 4 or 5 years, meaning that sex between [70% of the] parties outside of marriage would be a Class C felony.”


The report also showed that 8,781 minors were married in the state between 2000-2015. That count puts North Carolina in the top five states for child marriage in the country during that period, ahead of Alabama (8,657 marriages) and Tennessee (8,413). 


Leading the country in child marriages during that 15 year period was Texas (with 40,260 marriages), Florida (16,486), and Kentucky (10,618).


Image from the ICRW August 2020 report about child marriages in North Carolina. The graphic shows human figures shaded orange and blue, to represent children who entered marriages with other minors, versus adults, and shows that 93% of minors married adults

93% of marriages involving a minor in NC in 2020 were between a minor and an adult,

via ICRW. 



It’s important to mention that Texas revised its marriage laws in 2017, and now only allows marriage for minors aged 16 and 17 who have been legally emancipated (and are considered adults under the law). Tennessee revised its laws in 2018, raising the lawful age to marry to 17, and prohibiting anyone under 18 from marrying someone more than 4 years older. Florida also raised the state’s minimum age to marry to 17 in 2018. 


North Carolina is one of 13 U.S. states that still allows minors under 16 to marry -- a list that’s getting shorter each year as more states revisit their marriage laws for minors. 



To find out the age of consent to marry in your state, visit our Marriage Laws page.



AMM takes an active interest in the evolving laws, conversations, philosophies, and attitudes surrounding marriage. Check back for more information on this topic and others relating to marriage law, wedding industry news, and other timely events impacting wedding officiants and engaged couples by visiting :  

AMM’s News Page  



Here at AMM, we believe that marriage and its solemnization are sacred acts with lasting implications. As such, a legal union should only occur when there is a clear understanding of the personal and legal obligations, and mutual consent. Since minors generally lack the maturity and life experience to objectively consider and consent to the legally binding contract of marriage, we strongly support any legislation that protects their wellbeing. 


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Jessica Levey
Jessica Levey

Lead Staff Writer & Illustrator

Jessica loves exploring the history and magic of ritual, the connections between people and places, and sharing true stories about love and commitment. She's an advocate for marriage equality, LGBTQ+ rights, and individuality, and is an ordained Minister with AMM. When she’s not writing or illustrating for AMM, she enjoys city hikes, fantasy novels, comics, and traveling.

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