8 of Wisconsin’s Weirdest Marriage Laws

Marital life rests on a surprisingly weird legal foundation.

Illustration by Elizabeth Baddeley.
Illustration by Elizabeth Baddeley.
Wisconsin’s got its own ideas about marriages, how they should go, and how easy they should be to dissolve. Yes, our legal system has some very specific opinions about first cousins marrying, and husbands with amnesia, and “spiritual ceremonies” that center on drinking games. We’ve gone to the trouble of explaining some of the quirkiest of these quirks below.

Cooling Off

The state of Wisconsin wants you to take it easy on your rebound and get to know yourself. Maybe learn to watercolor. State law requires at least a six-month gap between any divorce and a new marriage.

Unrequited Love

A 1907 Wisconsin law (later repealed) forbade the “insane, mentally imbecile, feeble-minded or epileptic” from ever getting married or having “intercourse.” Engaging in the latter carried a penalty of up to six months in jail.

Illustration by Elizabeth Baddeley.
Illustration by Elizabeth Baddeley.

Ties that Bind

Typically, a binding marriage ceremony must have someone of the cloth on hand, whether that’s a judge’s robes or a religious leader’s vestments. However, devising your own “spiritual ceremony” is completely allowed, even if it involves transforming the vows into a drinking game, or tying the knot inside a video game. Whatever happens, someone has to supply an official we-got-married document to the county clerk, written in “unfading black ink.”

Teen Marriage

In Wisconsin, youths ages 16 or 17 can get married, but only with the written and notarized permission of their parents. A form is available from your local county clerk.

Too Generous

Wisconsin actually sets a limit on how much a spouse can give away from shared “marital assets” without the other spouse’s permission. For example, if Bill gives $2,000 (more than the $1,000 limit) to the Humane Society, and wife Susan, a local history buff, would rather give it to the Historical Society, she can sue the animal people to get the money back.

The Plot-Twist Rule

Under Wisconsin law, if your husband or wife is lost at sea, disappears after a mysterious car accident, or is otherwise believed to have expired, you can remarry, and you won’t get in trouble. Even if your thought-to-be-dead spouse pulls a Cast Away and shows up on your doorstep one day (standing in the rain). Both marriages exist, for a time, in a weird kind of limbo, but case law would tend to favor seeking a swift divorce from one soul mate or the other.

Illustration by Elizabeth Baddeley.
Illustration by Elizabeth Baddeley.

License to Print Money

Marriage licenses are priced astronomically high in Wisconsin, partly because state law sets a minimum cost of $50. Milwaukee County’s price ($110) and Dane County’s ($120) are among the highest in the country. New York City charges only $35.

Kissing Cousins

First cousins can also tie the knot. How? Our mindful legal system provides two options: The first is for first-cousin marriages involving women over the age of 55. Those are all legit. Otherwise, half of the connubial unit must supply a doctor-signed affidavit asserting that he or she is “permanently sterile.” Marrying siblings – half siblings included – is still verboten.

‘Uncommon Law’ appears in Milwaukee Weddings 2016, a brand new addition to the Milwaukee Magazine family.

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Matt has written for Milwaukee Magazine since 2006, when he was a lowly intern. Since then, he’s held the posts of assistant news editor and, most recently, senior editor. He’s lived in South Carolina, Tennessee, Connecticut, Iowa, and Indiana but mostly in Wisconsin. He wants to do more fishing but has a hard time finding worms. For the magazine, Matt has written about city government, schools, religion, coffee roasters and Congress.