Under Age Marriage Contracts

This text explains why Edward was legally contracted to Lucy, despite the fact that he was under 21 when he entered into the contract.

[Edward’s situation] was actually covered in a known reported case.

The legal situation with regard to the age at which one could marry in the 18th century was quite complex.

Let me explain.

Infants under 6 years of age could not contract any marriage.

From the age of 7 till the age of 12 in a female and 14 in a male, they could agree to be married in the future.

After the age of 12 in a female and 14 in a male, they could be married, quite legally, as long as they complied with the requirements of the Marriage Act of 1753, and obtained their parents’ consents.

However, legally they were still infants at this stage, not having attained the age of 21 years.

Normally an infant cannot make a contract. But there is an exception to this general rule, is if it is deemed that the contract was necesary or for his general benefit.

In the case of Holt v Ward, a Mrs Holt, the plaintiff declared that it was mutually agreed between her and the defendant Mr Ward, when she was an infant of 15 years of age, that they should marry at some future date. They exchanged mutual promises to marry, and were, therefore, engaged to each other.

However, Mr Ward married another woman.

On being sued Mr Ward claimed that the agreement to marry was void as Mrs Holt has been under the age of 21 when their promises to marry each other were made.

The court found for her, and awarded her £2000 damages.

The reasoning was as follows:

The contract of an infant is considered in law, as different from the contracts of all other persons.

In some cases his contract shall bind him; such is the contract of an infant for necessaries, and the law allows him to make this contract, as necessary for his preservation; and therefore in such case a single bill will bind him….

Where the contract may be for the benefit of the infant, or to his prejudice, the law so far protects him, as to give him the opportunity to consider it when he comes of age, and it is good or voidable at his election.

But tho’ the infant hath this priviledge, yet the party with whom he contracteth hath not.

And as marriage is looked upon as an advantageous contract, for the infants benefit, and no distinction holds whether the party suing be man or woman, it therefore falls within the general reason of the law with regard to infants contracts.

Therefore as the contract to marry was deemed by the court to be a good thing and a “necessary”, and was for the infant’s benefit, it could not be voidable, but was binding when the infant came of age.

So, even if Edward contracted to marry Lucy Steele when he was under age, he did not have the option of declining to validate that contract when he came of age: he was fully bound, for despite being an infant when the contract was made, the contract was for his benefit and therefore was legal under the general exception to the rule that infants could not normally make contracts that were legally binding, as outlined above.