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Marriage, American-Style: Strange Laws and Oddities

By Richard Dahl on May 05, 2022 3:39 PM

A few extremely odd marriage stories — make that "marriage" stories — popped up recently in the news.

Thousands of people in Japan say they have married fictional characters. An Australian man announced that he intends to marry a robot. A Cambodian woman married a cow, believing it contains the soul of her late husband, and a woman in London married her cat to avoid a landlord's restrictions on pets.

Each of these weird events occurred in other countries with different rules and traditions about the "sacred" institution of marriage. But maybe we Americans shouldn't be so smug in how we judge these outsiders. After all, we have some strange laws and customs of our own.

We might not have stories to share about marriage between humans and fictional beings, robots, or animals. But in searching the legal record, we did find a few oddities.

'Let's See Your Permission Slip'

In Vermont, women needing false teeth must get their husbands' permission to do so. At least that's what state law has said since 1865. Gilman v. Andrus involved, among other things, a set of false teeth a woman ordered from a dentist and a bill that the husband refused to pay. After the case concluded, the state legislature passed a law requiring women to provide dentists with permission from their husbands to get dentures. Although the law is still on the books, it is quite obviously no longer enforced.

Shoot First and Keep Your Clothes on

Two other marriage laws from olden times in Massachusetts are worth mentioning for their weirdness. In the Cape Cod town of Truro (or maybe it was Eastham), men couldn't marry until they could "prove themselves manly" by shooting either six blackbirds or three crows. (The birds were a nuisance, devouring a portion of the community's crops.) In Salem, married couples could not be naked in a rented room.

Back Up the Sweet Talk, Buster

In South Carolina, it is illegal for a male over age 16 to deceptively seduce an unmarried woman with a promise of marriage. The offense is a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail or a fine to be determined by a court.

Sincerity, Please

In Colorado and Delaware, getting married on a "jest or dare" is grounds for annulment. While those are apparently the only two states that prohibit it by statute, other states have case law that allows annulment due to jest or dare.

Weddings Without Brides or Grooms

To allow men and women serving overseas to get hitched, several states allow proxy marriages where only one person needs to be present at the wedding ceremony. Montana, however, is the only state that allows neither party to be present. It's called a "double proxy" marriage, and court officials say its popularity has mushroomed during the coronavirus pandemic.

2 States Say Living in Sin is Against the Law

Two states, Michigan and Mississippi, still have laws on the books against cohabitation. However, an increasing number of jurisdictions recognize domestic partnerships, providing them rights that are comparable to those of married couples.

Child Brides Galore

Between 2000 and 2018, nearly 300,000 children under the age of 18 were married in the U.S. Most states say consent is not required for marriage at 18, but they allow younger people to get married with parental consent. As recently as 2017, child marriage was legal in all 50 states, but a movement to ban them has emerged, and six states now prohibit minors from marrying.

Can Cousins Marry Each Other? Yes. And No.

State laws on cousin marriages are all over the map. According to the latest data in a 2021 Cardozo Law Review article, first cousins cannot marry, cohabitate, or have intercourse in 30 states. Six states have blanket prohibitions against cousin marriage but allow exceptions; five of them say it's OK for first cousins to marry if they are beyond their child-bearing years, with minimum ages ranging from 50 to 65.

Word count: 702

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Americans can't marry robots or animals. But that doesn't mean the U.S. doesn't have some wacky marriage laws and customs of its own.

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