What Is an Illegal Marriage?

Tara Barnett
Tara Barnett
An illegal marriage is one that does not conform to the laws of the jurisdiction where the official marriage took place.
An illegal marriage is one that does not conform to the laws of the jurisdiction where the official marriage took place.

Illegal marriage is simply marriage that does not conform to the legal restrictions of marriage present in a specific area. If a person is married in an area that allows a certain type of marriage but then moves to or visits an area where that type of marriage is illegal, the rights of that person may not be upheld. While many restrictions on marriage concern the types of people who may become married, motivations for marriage can also be made illegal. Given that what constitutes an illegal marriage differs depending on area, it is important to look into the laws specific to the state in which the marriage is to occur.

Religious marriages need not always line up with state marriages, although religious marriages may not provide the same legal benefits that state marriages can.
Religious marriages need not always line up with state marriages, although religious marriages may not provide the same legal benefits that state marriages can.

In many areas, a marriage may be illegal if one or more of the parties belong to a specific group or if a participant is already married. It is common for underage marriage to be illegal whether one or both partners are underage. Gender is also a large factor in determining if a marriage is an illegal marriage, as many areas hold that marriages between two members of the same biological sex are illegal. In certain places, two people who are getting married must be of the same religion or of the same race. There have been many other restrictions on marriage historically, and it is likely that many more will evolve.

In many areas, polygamy is illegal.
In many areas, polygamy is illegal.

One interesting complication to illegal marriage regulations is that sometimes the reason a person decides to marry can make the marriage either legal or illegal. For example, a green card marriage, in which a citizen of the United States marries a citizen of another country in order to provide that alien with a green card, is often considered illegal marriage. Problematically, it is not often possible to determine which marriages are fraudulent and which are entered into for love. As such, it is usually necessary for a couple to remain married for a number of years before the foreign citizen can get United States citizenship.

Couples involved in a green card marriage may undergo scrutiny to make sure the couple married for love and not to manipulate immigration laws.
Couples involved in a green card marriage may undergo scrutiny to make sure the couple married for love and not to manipulate immigration laws.

It is possible for a certain type of marriage to be illegal in one sense, but permissible in another. Religious marriages need not always line up with state marriages, although religious marriages may not provide the same legal benefits that state marriages can. Even if marriage is not legal for a couple, it is often possible for people to enter into other types of contracts that resemble marriage but do not go by the same name. Also, even if an appropriate agreement cannot be obtained, many areas do not actively prevent those people who are not allowed to marry from engaging in long-term relationships with one another.

Is It Illegal To Have an Arranged Marriage?

Marriage involving someone under the age of 18 is a voidable contract.
Marriage involving someone under the age of 18 is a voidable contract.

Not only are arranged marriages not illegal but in some cultures they are the norm. The parents of the potential bride and groom may come to an agreement on their own, or they may enlist the services of a matchmaker to choose the best mate for their children. Arranged marriages are the most common in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, but they also occur in the U.S.

In the U.S., parents are using technology to arrange marriages. There are websites taking the place of the traditional matchmaker in arranging suitable marriages. There are also marriage conferences, where the parents may take their child to find a suitable bride or groom.

Unfortunately, in some areas, child marriages and forced marriages are still types of arranged marriages. A child marriage is one where at least one of the parties being married is under the age of 18. A forced marriage is one where one of the people who are to wed have not expressed their full, free consent. Child marriages are always forced marriages, as children are presumed to not have the full capacity to give consent in this situation.

What Is the Penalty for a Sham Marriage?

There’s a popular trope in pop culture where a U.S. citizen marries a foreign national so the immigrant can get a green card and stay in the country permanently. Immigration and Customs Enforcement looks at these marriages with a microscope, going through every detail of the couple’s lives with a fine-toothed comb, to make sure the marriage is born from love and not an attempt to circumvent the immigration process.

Fraudulent marriages may also be the result of other criminal acts, such as bringing terrorists into the country who can then get legitimate jobs and establish clean identities to hid their malfeasance from the government. Human trafficking rings may operate through sham marriages, too.

Marrying for a green card constitutes fraud, and is a federal criminal offense. The penalty is up to five years in a federal penitentiary, a fine of up to $250,000 or both. Additional charges of harboring an alien, visa fraud, making false statements and conspiracy may also apply. Each offense carries an additional prison sentence and fine.

If a U.S. citizen marries a non-citizen for legitimate reasons, but then the marriage takes a turn for the worse, the couple may be tempted to stay together through the waiting period for immigration purposes. If that’s the case in your marriage, talk to your immigration attorney about your particular circumstance.

What Marriages Are Illegal in the US?

Many kinds of marriages are illegal in the U.S. The most well-known is polygamy, where one person has two or more spouses who know about each other at the same time. If the spouses don’t know about each other, the practice is called bigamy instead. This is most common in certain religious sects, such as fundamentalist Mormons.

Polygamy is illegal in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, punishable by fines, jail time or both, depending on the jurisdiction. The federal government doesn’t recognize bigamous marriages for purposes of immigration, even if it’s legal in the aliens’ home country. Hopeful immigrants can’t enter the U.S. for the purposes of a polygamous marriage.

Another marriage that’s illegal in the U.S. is child marriage. Unfortunately, only six states (New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, Minnesota and Rhode Island) have set the age at which you can get married at 18 with no exceptions.

In other states, there’s a “statutory rape exception.” Statutory rape is when someone has sex with a child between the ages of 12 and 16 and is four or more years older than the child. If the adult and child are married, that is a valid defense to statutory rape.

With the exception of the six states listed above, child marriage can occur in all other states under certain circumstances, including:

  • If one of the parties is pregnant
  • If the parents, a court clerk or a judge give consent
  • If the minor has given birth
  • If the minor is emancipated

Another type of marriage that’s illegal in the U.S. is cousin marriage. Some states allow first cousins to marry, including Virginia, California, New York, Alabama, Georgia and Florida. In some of these states, first cousin marriage is only allowed if at least one party is sterile or if both parties are age 65 or older. Other states allow for cousin marriage if genetic counseling has been done or if the cousins aren’t double first cousins, with two siblings marrying two siblings and both pairs having children.

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Discussion Comments

Ana1234

@KoiwiGal - I think the reason GLBT folk want to have the same rights to marriage as their fellow heterosexual citizens is simply because there is no reason why they should be denied it, except sexism. Different but equal segregation doesn't work.

I've never understood what the big deal is, to be honest. There are all kinds of things the general public does that aren't supposed to be done by Christians or other religious folk and they don't usually protest against that. This isn't something that is even going to directly effect them or effect anyone except the couples involved, so I don't see why it's anyone's business except theirs.

KoiwiGal

@irontoenail - It's an interesting question, because a lot of the gay marriage debate revolves around the fact that they basically do already have all the rights of marriage through civil unions, but that they want to be able to say that they are actually married.

Legally there might not be any difference. It kind of makes you wonder what the definition of marriage actually is. Is it just a legal arrangement? If so, what difference does it make what the name of the arrangement happens to be?

irontoenail

I find this all kind of difficult to be honest. Especially the clause about green cards. Because I don't actually think that marriage should have anything to do with love, legally at least. I think it should just be a legal arrangement between two (or possibly more) consenting adults and that should be the only consideration.

But I also don't think that it should be used as a means to get into a country. I guess the solution would be to tie the ability to bring over a spouse with something over than marriage status, like how long they have lived together, or whether they have children.

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    • An illegal marriage is one that does not conform to the laws of the jurisdiction where the official marriage took place.
      By: TaniaLerro
      An illegal marriage is one that does not conform to the laws of the jurisdiction where the official marriage took place.
    • Religious marriages need not always line up with state marriages, although religious marriages may not provide the same legal benefits that state marriages can.
      By: Piotr Marcinski
      Religious marriages need not always line up with state marriages, although religious marriages may not provide the same legal benefits that state marriages can.
    • In many areas, polygamy is illegal.
      By: shotsstudio
      In many areas, polygamy is illegal.
    • Couples involved in a green card marriage may undergo scrutiny to make sure the couple married for love and not to manipulate immigration laws.
      By: Ferrante Pietro
      Couples involved in a green card marriage may undergo scrutiny to make sure the couple married for love and not to manipulate immigration laws.
    • Marriage involving someone under the age of 18 is a voidable contract.
      By: tomas del amo
      Marriage involving someone under the age of 18 is a voidable contract.