Marriage has generally been defined as a contract between a man and a woman who have consented to become husband and wife. More specifically, the U.S. Congress, in the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), Public Law 104-199, passed in 1996, defines marriage as “a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife.” The status of DOMA has been challenged by proponents of same-sex marriage, who believe among other things that only legal marriage can guarantee full spousal rights such as inheritance, health care decisions, and parental rights. In 2004, Massachusetts passed legislation recognizing same-sex marriage; several states have varying degrees of spousal rights for same-sex couples.
Marriage requirements are defined by the laws of each state. Yet, there are certain aspects of a valid marriage that are required of any couple desiring to become husband and wife. These additional considerations include the capacity of the parties to enter into the marriage, the consent of the parties, and the age of each person. Regarding age, if individuals are minors, they must obtain the consent of either one or both of their parents, depending upon the laws of the state.
The fact that the states can regulate marriage has given rise to laws that control other aspects of the ability of a couple to wed including the race of the each party in the couple, the sex of each party, and whether either party is already married. Although the states have the authority to regulate the institution of marriage and establish the laws that do so, some laws, such as those forbidding people of different races to marry, have been struck down by the Supreme Court of the United States as unconstitutional. The Congress of the United States has also enacted limitations to the marital union, the most recent being the enactment of DOMA, which not only defines marriage but also gives individual states the right not to recognize “a relationship between persons of the same sex that is treated as a marriage under the laws of such other State.” In other words, such laws from one state do not have to be recognized by another state.
Because the laws regarding marriage vary considerably from state to state, couples desiring more spe-cific information should contact their state government.