WASHINGTON – Did you hear the one about the West Virginia cousins who married each other? Turns out that jokes like that may be on Maryland.
Maryland is one of 19 states that allow first cousins to marry, attracting kissing cousins from out of state who come here to register their unions, according to circuit clerks in Western Maryland.
“A lot of people come here because the marriage laws are easier,” said Allegany County Circuit Clerk Raymond Walker, who is in his seventh term as court clerk.
Neither he nor Garrett County Circuit Clerk David K. Martin said there is line of cousins around the courthouse — but it’s not unheard of either, they said.
“We maybe do cousins one time a year,” in Garrett County, where 65.9 percent of marriage licenses go to out-of-state couples, said Martin. When cousins do marry in Garrett County, they are often from the area’s small Amish or Mennonite communities, Martin said.
Walker said Allegany County regularly issues three or four marriage licenses a year to cousins, who are almost always out-of-staters who researched state laws and came here to get hitched.
About 40 percent of all marriage licenses issued in Maryland’s three westernmost counties go to non-residents, according to 1997 data from the state. Most of those are to residents of West Virginia and Pennsylvania, Walker said.
Neither Maryland nor Virginia prohibits union between cousins. By contrast, West Virginia law specifically says that a man cannot marry his mother, sister, daughter, first cousin or double cousin, and vice versa for women.
Pennsylvania law says simply that people related by blood cannot marry, while Delaware allows second cousins to marry.
Although cousins are allowed to marry in Maryland, state law does not allow marriage between siblings, parents and children or grandparents and children. Some family ties that are not blood-related, such as stepchildren and stepparents and parents- or children-in-law are also prohibited.
The penalty for, say, marrying your mom, is a $1,500 fine or “permanent banishment from this state,” according to Maryland law.
Before issuing a license, Martin said he has to ask couples if they are related in any way. Those who are, he said, are usually a former husband and wife who decided to remarry. But not all applicants are as understanding when Martin asks if they are related.
“Some say, ‘Do you think we’re perverted?’ or snicker,” Martin said. “But it’s just a question that we have to ask.”
Walker said people sometimes get confused when he asks the question.
“We’re not asking if you’ve had relations, we’re asking if you’re related by blood,” he said with a laugh.
Walker said he has seen instances where half-brothers and sisters have fallen in love and married without knowing they were related.
“That’s very rare and really creates problems. We’ve had that where they found out just in time, some too late,” he said.
“I have known of a number of couples that are first cousins in the area and they have absolutely beautiful children,” Walker said. “But one never knows what genetics are going to do.”
Another factor behind the brisk business in Maryland marriage licenses may be the fact that the rules have traditionally been slightly less stringent here than in many neighboring states. Maryland does not require a blood test and only requires a two-day wait before a license can be issued.
Pennsylvania has a three-day waiting period between the time a couple applies for a license and the time they can pick it up, while Delaware has a one-day wait for residents and four-day wait for non-residents.
Virginia has no waiting period, nor does West Virginia. But until June, when the law changed, West Virginia required both a three-day wait and a blood test, neither of which is needed now.
Since the law changed, Walker said Maryland has seen less West Virginians making a wedding run for the border.
About a quarter of marriages performed in Jefferson County, W.Va., are to out-of-state residents, according to an employee in the county clerk’s office there.
The employee, who declined to give her name, said many couples come to the area to get married because of the romantic scenery at nearby Harper’s Ferry and historic Shepherdstown.
She said she has only seen one incident in her two years in the Jefferson County clerk’s office where a pair of first cousins applied for a marriage license.
They were, of course, denied.