Guide to Laws About Marriage and Divorce in the U.S.

Laws related to marriage and divorce in the United States are mostly made at the state level, although federal laws and court decisions have influenced certain aspects. So these laws vary quite a bit from state to state. The most significant area of difference is whether your state has a community property system, or an equitable distribution system, which we will discuss.

Who can get married in the U.S.?

Generally, to enter into a legal marriage, both parties must meet specific requirements. These typically include being of a certain age (18 years or older, although some states allow younger ages with parental consent), not being closely related by blood, and having the mental capacity to understand the nature and obligations of marriage.

All states have legalized same-sex marriage as of the landmark Supreme Court decision in 2015. See our Guide to Civil Rights.

Is it legal to marry more than one person in the U.S.?

No. The practice of having multiple spouses, known as polygamy, is illegal in the United States, and prohibited in all 50 states. Marriage is recognized only as a union between two individuals.

Polygamy was outlawed in the United States through a series of laws and court decisions dating back to the 19th century. Along with state bans, the federal Edmunds Act of 1882 prohibited polygamy in federal territory as well.

Should we sign a prenup?

Many couples choose to enter into prenuptial (prenup) agreements before the marriage, or postnuptial (post-nup) agreements after the marriage, to establish the distribution of assets and debts in the event of a divorce. These agreements can provide clarity and protect individual interests during a divorce.

To get a quick prenup and save thousands of dollars versus using a lawyer, we recommend Law Soup Media may receive compensation from this vendor if you use any of their services. Thank you for your support!

How does divorce work?

Divorce, the legal dissolution of a marriage, is also governed by state laws. While the specific grounds for divorce vary among states, the most common grounds include irreconcilable differences, adultery, abandonment, cruelty, and imprisonment. Some states offer “no-fault” divorce, where neither party needs to prove that the other spouse is at fault for the breakdown of the marriage. No-fault divorces are generally based on the premise of an irretrievable breakdown of the marital relationship.

The divorce process typically involves filing a petition or complaint with the appropriate court, providing legal notice to the other spouse, and going through negotiations, mediation, or court hearings to determine matters such as child custody, spousal support (alimony), division of property, and child support. The specifics of these issues can vary significantly between states, and courts strive to make decisions that are in the best interests of any children involved.

When I marry someone, do they immediately own half of my assets?

Again, it depends on the state, whether state law follows either community property or equitable distribution principles. Community property states, such as California, Arizona, and Texas, consider all assets and debts acquired during the marriage to be equally owned by both spouses, and they are divided equally upon divorce. In contrast, equitable distribution states, including New York, Florida, and Illinois, aim to divide marital property and debts fairly, but not necessarily equally, based on factors such as each spouse’s contributions, earning capacity, and financial needs.

Related Pages & Resources

For help with marriage and divorce issues, you may want to speak with a family law attorney. See our Guide to Getting Legal Help.

For prenups (and to save thousands of dollars versus using a lawyer) we recommend Law Soup Media may receive compensation from this vendor if you use any of their services. Thank you for your support!


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