In Florida, 16- and 17-year-olds can get married to someone of any age with the signature of a parent. If a girl is pregnant, she can get married at any age, even at 10 and 11- years old.
But, a bill trying to cut down on under-age marriages is moving its way through the Florida Legislature, with the hope that it will end that practice.
Since 2000, 1,246 kids under the age of 18 have been married, mostly girls and mostly to adult men. Far more marriage licenses were issued, but never used.
Texas, Florida and Kentucky lead the nation in the number of underage marriages in states where that data is recorded, according to the non-profit group Unchained at Last. But, more than half of states have no age floor for children to get married.
Senate Bill 140 would prevent any child from getting married before he or she turns 18, even if there is parental consent.
“Marriage before 18 can easily be forced marriage, and we know that many times it is,” said Fraidy Reese, who runs Unchained at Last an organization that helps people leave arranged or forced marriages.
“Before a child achieves adulthood, she has a very difficult time if she wants to leave home with the help of an advocate, get into a domestic violence shelter, retain an attorney [since contracts with children are voidable] or even bring a legal action in her own name,” said Reese.
A 2012 study found that two-thirds of marriages to underage girls don't work out.
Sen. Perry Thurston Jr., D-Fort Lauderdale, raised concerns that prosecutors weren’t getting involved in some of the cases where a girl is pregnant, which could be situations of capital sexual battery (a crime punishable by a mandatory sentence of life in prison) or statutory rape.
“I just find it hard to believe that there are jurisdictions in this day and age that are allowing adults to marry to minors,” said Thurston.
“Unfortunately this is going on,” said Bonnie Sockel-Stone, a member of the Family Law section of the Florida Bar. “It is a problem and it is unfortunate that for whatever reason state attorneys aren’t always prosecuting this situation.”
But, she pointed out was that in many of these cases the family is supportive of the marriage, so no one is reporting them as crimes and the marriage moves ahead.
The bill, filed by Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, passed the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously, but it has two more committees to clear before it can be presented to the full Senate.
There is an accompanying bill in the house: House Bill 335.