Marriage is a personal relationship arising from a legal contract between two individuals. In the United States, state law primarily governs marriage. In this regard, states impose various restrictions on marriage:
Age. Parties seeking to be married have to meet minimum age requirements. Some states permit minors to marry provided the couples obtain parental approval or court permission.
Marital Status. Parties seeking to be married must be unmarried. While polygamous societies do exist in the United States, no states recognize a marriage that involves more than two people.
Consent. Marriage is no different from other contracts in that it requires the consent of the contracting parties. As such, a court may void a marriage contract if a contracting party was under the age of consent, consent of a contracting party was obtained by fraud, or a contracting party could not consent because of an unsound mind.
Family Members. States also prohibit parties from marrying their relatives; e.g., Connecticut prohibits men from marrying their mothers, grandmothers, daughters, granddaughters, sisters, aunts, nieces, stepmothers or stepdaughters. The same rule applies for women and their corresponding male relatives.
State restriction on marriage must be constitutional. For instance, in Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1 (1967), the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Virginia law that forbade interracial marriages. The Court stated that while states may regulate marriages, their power was not absolute under the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In this case, the Court declared that the freedom of marriage was a fundamental right. Accordingly, the state's denial of the right to marriage on the basis of race violated the Equal Protection Clause and the Due Process Clause under the Fourteenth Amendment.
What are Civil Unions?
Civil unions are legally-binding partnerships entered into by two people. Sometimes civil unions are referred to as civil partnerships or registered partnerships—the purpose of which is to grant the parties certain benefits found in marriage. The level of benefits granted varies by jurisdictions. Some states treat civil unions the same as marriage in everything but name.
What is Common Law Marriage?
Not all states recognize common law marriages. For those states that do recognize common law marriages, they treat a common law marriage the same as a legally binding ceremonial marriage. The differences between the two are that common law marriages:
are not licensed under government authority,
are not solemnized,
are not blessed by a religious institution or authority, and
are not entered into public record.
Furthermore, the parties to a common law marriage must hold themselves out to the public as if they are husband and wife. Just living with someone does not constitute a common law marriage. Some jurisdictions also required that the couple must have lived together and held themselves out as husband and wife for a certain duration for the common law marriage to be considered valid.