Missouri's child marriage laws among nation's most lenient

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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. Compared to other states, it's pretty easy for teenagers to tie the knot in the Show-Me State.
Since 1999, more than a thousand 15 year-olds have gotten married in Missouri and according to a study done by the Kansas City Star, many of them come from out of state. Why? Well, the Star's analysis of marriage statues shows that the Show Me state has the most lenient laws in the country.

"Basically parental consent is all that's required," explained Cheryl Dawson-Spaulding, Greene County's Collector of Deeds.

That's consent from not both parents, just one. The Star found that every other state requires some combination of a judges' order, both parents permission, premarital counseling, or proof of pregnancy. But in Missouri, a judge only gets involved in those cases where someone is 14 or younger.

And how young is too young? Well, in Missouri there is no minimum age for getting married.

"By law we issue the license as long as the paperwork is there and we try to treat everybody in the same manner," Dawson-Spaulding said. "We're not judgmental."

Missouri rates among the top 10 states in child marriages below the age of 18 and the Star report found that 85% of the teenagers getting married are girls, most of whom live in poverty. Many drop out of high school and depend on government assistance.

There have been efforts to change the law. Last year time ran out before the Missouri legislature could act on a bill that would have prohibited marriage for anyone under 17, and this year there's a move to prohibit marriages for anyone under 15 and keep anyone older than 20 from marrying anyone under 17.

"When we get couples who say, for instance, are a 15 year-old wanting to marry a 35, 40-year-old person. That's a little hard to stomach, Dawson-Spaulding said.

Back in the old days it was not unusual for people to get married in their early teens.

"They were required to start work earlier and they had to contribute to their family," Dawson-Spaulding said of the early part of the last century.

But these days, there appears to be a consensus that the early teen years is too young.

"I'm just a firm believer that if you love them today you'll love them when they're 18," Dawson-Spaulding said.