Chris Schulz Published

Update: Minimum Marriage Age Becomes Law

Sen. Charles Trump, R-Morgan, answers questions about a bill on the Senate floor Friday night, March 10, 2023. The background behind him is red to his left, and white marble to his right with a sliver of more red. Trump is wearing a grey suit over a red tie and white shirt. On the far right of the frame, the outline of another speaker's head can be seen in the extreme foreground.
Sen. Charles Trump, R-Morgan, answers questions about a bill on the Senate floor Friday night, March 10, 2023.
Will Price/WV Legislative Photography

Updated on Saturday, March. 11, 2023 at 6:40 p.m.

After being revived in the final hours of the 2023 Legislative session, House Bill 3018 was amended by the Senate Friday night to allow those 16 years and older to be married, with limitations.

Saturday evening the House of Delegates accepted those amendments without debate and passed the bill with a vote of 83 yeas, 9 nays and 8 absent or not voting.

Original Post:

As it was originally passed in the House of Delegates, House Bill 3018 establishes 18 as the age of consent for marriage and removes the ability of an underaged person to obtain consent to marry through a guardian or courts.

Under current law, 16 and 17-year-olds can marry with parental consent and anyone under the age of 16 can be married in West Virginia with a certificate from a judge.

Friday night, the Senate took up the bill and changed the minimum age to 16 but also added that there could not be more than 4 years age difference between the two people. This change was specifically to stop older men from grooming teenage girls for marriage.  

During discussion of the bill Thursday night, Sen. Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell, shared his own experience of helping a woman who had been married in 8th grade get a divorce. On Friday, he discussed the financial pressures young couples can face, and countered personal stories shared by other Senators of happy endings for young marriages.

“Yes, many years ago – 20, 30, 40, 50 years ago, things were a bit different,” Woelfel said. “There are family pressures, there are financial pressures, but not all stories end that way. I recall reading about a very young couple that got married. The pressure of their situation was so intense, he committed suicide and she stabbed herself with his dagger. This is not a new problem.”

West Virginia has the highest rate of child marriages in the country, and Woelfel said that with most of those marriages happening with 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds, the amendment would not significantly address the issue.

Woelfel was ultimately the only no vote on the bill as it passed the Senate because he wanted to keep to the House’s original age of 18. 

Sen. Mike Stuart, R-Kanawha, also stood in support of the bill, but said the issue had been blown out of proportion by the national media. 

“I said my goodness, if West Virginia is so far outside the norm, if those folks are playing politics with this issue, I said I better take a look at what the rest of the country does on this subject,” Stuart said. “In the U.S. an individual can marry without parental consent at the age of 18 in all states except Nebraska, where the age of consent is 19. Most states have a minimum marriage age for minors with parental consent ranging from 12 to 17 years old, California, Mississippi don’t have minimum ages.”

He also cited statistics from the Director of Vital Statistics that showed there were only six marriages of 14-year-olds and 15-year-olds in West Virginia between 2012 and 2021, all to people aged 21 or younger.

Sen. Charles Trump, R- Morgan, gave several examples of concerning age disparities in marriages in West Virginia.

“On the far right side of the chart, there was one 16 year old girl who married a 40 year old male and one who married a 49 year old male. A 16 year old girl marrying a 49 year old male in West Virginia,” he said. “This amendment, if it becomes law, will prevent that. The amendment says you can’t marry anybody who’s more than four years older than you are.”

The amendment passed on a voice vote. 

The bill had a contentious route to pass, and was considered dead in the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday, before being revived and returned to the Senate floor by a procedural motion Thursday night.

House Bill 3018 now returns to the House of Delegates for its consideration of the Senate’s amendment.