How Does a Child’s Marriage Affect the Custody/Support of Said Child in PA?
In May of 2020, Pennsylvania became the third state to outlaw the marriage of a minor (under the age of 18) in any circumstances. It joined Delaware and New Jersey in banning this practice. As of the date of this article there are only six states that have banned the practice, Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Rhode Island, and New York. On the other side, there are nine states that have no minimum marriage age at all, including West Virginia and California. An April 2021 study by the activist group Unchained at Last, funded by the Gates Foundation, estimated that 297,000 minors were married in the U.S. between 2000 and 2018, and that 60,000 of them were so young they violated their state’s age of sexual consent.
However, despite it being banned on the books, there are still places where a minor can be considered emancipated (legally considered an adult for some rights, still cannot drink or vote) if he or she is married, including welfare, child custody cases, and child support cases. Under PA Law a child is subject to child custody laws and child support laws, unless they are considered emancipated. PA Law does not give a definition of emancipation but rather gives the courts broad discretion to declare emancipation of a minor on the circumstances of each case. Under PA case law, Marriage is not a conclusive factor in determining whether a child is emancipated, but is a factor to be considered under the totality of the circumstances. Even when a child has been declared emancipated, the courts have broad discretion to decide at a later date, that the child is now unemancipated. A large amount of the case law, seems to turn on if the child who is seeking to be declared emancipated is truly no longer supported by their parents. If for some reason the marriage fails or the married parties separate and the child spouse is now living with a parent again, the marriage is usually no longer considered grounds for emancipation.
The second thorny issue is whether or not a child marriage is considered valid in PA even though you can’t get married here. Under the 14th amendment courts in pa have read it to give full faith and credit to marriages of other jurisdictions. The point when this was most challenged was during the Same-Sex Marriage push. The various courts struggled to deal with recognition of other state’s same sex marriages, especially since there was and still is, though defunct, a law on the book which declared all same-sex marriages void in PA. The courts have found that because of full faith and credit, even when same-sex marriage was not legal here, the same-sex marriage would be recognize under PA law and given the same rights in the court system, including but not limited to the ability to take in a spouse’s estate at death, or the ability to get divorced.
As such, the full faith and credit argument would state that the marriages of a minor in another state would be considered valid in Pennsylvania. The question then becomes is the married child in a marriage which is built on the support of both spouses, or is the marriage a sham trying to game the system. If it is the latter, the minor child will probably still be considered dependent and therefore child custody orders and child support orders could still apply, especially if the married couple do not live together, or live in a parent’s household.
To sum up, child marriage is banned in Pennsylvania, but if you were to force your child to get married in another state in order to defeat custody or support, it will probably not be recognized as enough to declare the child emancipated and therefore you will have subjected your child to a forced marriage for nothing, and could count against you in any of these cases. If your child is truly marrying someone else and seeks to be in a supported committed married relationship, then there is a good chance it will be recognized as a factor that weighs heavily in deciding whether the child is emancipated.