Bigamy Law: Charges, Penalties and Defenses

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 What is Bigamy?

Bigamy is defined as formally entering into one marriage while the previous one is un-dissolved. If a spouse is married to one individual and attempts to enter into a second marriage with another individual, it is considered bigamous. The second marriage is void and grounds for an annulment.

One of the requirements of obtaining a marriage license is the dissolution or annulment of all previous marriages. Failure to do so can result in a bigamous marriage.

An individual who knowingly enters into a bigamous marriage has committed the crime of bigamy. Although it is a crime in theory, it is seldom prosecuted in practice unless it involves a fraudulent scheme to obtain another individual’s property or to commit another felony.

Bigamy is typically classified as the lowest level of a felony or the highest level of a misdemeanor, equivalent to failure to register as a sex offender. The penalties for bigamy vary by state, but they are often less severe than the penalties for a drunk driving conviction.

What is the Status of Bigamy Today?

The United States Supreme Court ruled that polygamy, or the practice of having more than one spouse at a time was illegal in 1878. Bigamy is a criminal offense in all 50 states in the United States. Bigamy laws by state will vary as to whether it is considered a felony or a misdemeanor. The states that consider bigamy a misdemeanor include:

  • Alaska;
  • Arkansas;
  • Hawaii, where it is a petty misdemeanor punishable by 30 days in jail;
  • Iowa;
  • Maine;
  • Missouri;
  • Montana;
  • Nebraska;
  • New Jersey;
  • Ohio;
  • Pennsylvania;
  • Rhode Island;
  • Tennessee; and
  • Texas.

What are Examples of Cases that are not Bigamous?

In many cases, individuals accidentally commit bigamy when they marry with the belief that their prior marriage is resolved. For example, if the individual believes their prior marriage has been terminated by a divorce or a decree of the nullity of marriage.

Another example may be when a spouse is absent and has not been heard of for 7 years, or in some states, five years, and is not known to be alive or is presumed to be dead. In this case, remarriage by the other spouse is not considered bigamy.

What are the Penalties for a Bigamy Conviction?

As previously noted, bigamy may be charged as either a felony or a misdemeanor depending on the state law. A crime that may be charged as a felony or a misdemeanor is known as a wobbler crime.

The penalty for bigamy will vary by state. However, the typical penalty for bigamy includes around 5 years in prison and a criminal fine. Examples by state include:

  • California: the defendant may face a fine of up to $10,000 or 1 year in jail. Additionally, the spouse of the bigamist may be charged $5,000 if they knew that the bigamist was married;
  • Florida: the defendant may face 5 years in jail and a $5,000 fine;
  • Idaho: the defendant may face 3 years in jail and a fine of $2,000;
  • Massachusetts: the defendant may face up to 5 years in state prison and a fine of $500;
  • Michigan: the defendant may face up to a year in prison and a fine up to $500;
  • Minnesota: the defendant may face up to 5 years in prison and a $10,000 fine;
  • Mississippi: the defendant may face up to 10 years in prison. They can have their medical licenses revoked. They cannot be appointed to public office;
  • Montana: the defendant may face 6 Months in prison or a $500 fine or both;
  • New Mexico: the defendant may face 2 to 7 years in prison;
  • New York: the defendant may face 3 to 4 years in prison;
  • Oklahoma: the defendant may face 5 years in jail;
  • Oregon: the defendant may face up to 5 years and a $100,000 fine;
  • South Carolina: the defendant may face up to 5 years and at least a $500 fine;
  • Texas: the defendant may face 2 to 10 years in prison and a fine of $10,000; and
  • Vermont: the defendant may face a sentence of not more than 5 years of prison.
    As shown, the criminal penalties for a bigamy conviction may vary widely depending on the jurisdiction and state law. The penalty may be increased under certain conditions, such as the individual having a previous bigamy conviction on their record.

How is Bigamy Proven?

It may be complicated to prove that an individual is still married to another individual at the time they enter into a new marriage. For example, if the individual’s previous marriage occurred outside of the United States, it may be difficult to locate the documentation needed to prove bigamy.

One of the simplest and most direct ways to prove bigamy is to produce the individual’s original marriage certificate or any other legal documentation showing that they are married. This may include other documents such as tax records and other records that show whether or not an individual is married.

In some instances, it may be possible to prove bigamy occurred without a marriage document. For example, the prosecutor may support their case by presenting evidence such as:

  • Testimony from the first spouse;
  • Testimony from the individual who performed the marriage ceremony;
  • Statements from individuals who witnessed the ceremony or marriage document; and
  • Other evidence, which may include photos or video footage.

What are the Steps to File for Bigamy Charges?

In many cases, an individual simply was not aware their previous divorce proceedings were not finalized. In those cases, the individual will need to ensure their divorce is finalized.

In cases where the crime of bigamy is committed, there are steps the other spouse may take. They may file for an annulment, as bigamy is grounds for an annulment.

Following this step, the spouse may go to a local law enforcement department and file a complaint against their spouse for bigamy. They may wish to discuss the potential punishments and consequences in their jurisdiction with an attorney prior to doing so, so that they might know what outcome to expect.

Are There any Legal Defenses to a Bigamy Charge?

There may be some legal defenses available to a bigamy charge. There is no national database to search and determine if an individual is married when they apply for a marriage license. Because of this, most states excuse an individual who reasonably believes their previous marriage was dissolved by annulment, death, or divorce.

An individual may also be excused from a bigamy charge if they did not contact their former spouse for 3-5 years. As far as they knew, their former spouse could have passed away or, in some cases, had been legally declared dead.

Are There Any Other Legal Issues Connected with Bigamy?

In many cases, bigamy is connected with other legal issues. For example, bigamy often occurs in connection with immigration fraud. This may occur when an alien who is married in another country attempts to use marriage to secure a visa or citizenship in the United States.

This may lead to various immigration consequences, including removal from the U.S., as well as a loss of their visa status. A U.S. citizen who knowingly and fraudulently assists an individual in obtaining a marriage for immigration purposes may also face legal consequences.

Do I Need a Lawyer if I am Facing Bigamy Charges?

It is essential to have the assistance of an experienced family lawyer if you are facing bigamy charges. Your attorney can review your case, determine if any defenses are available to you, and represent you during any court proceedings.

If you are getting married, it is important for you and your future spouse to secure evidence of the dissolution of any previous marriages. This may be done by obtaining a notarized copy of your divorce decree from the county clerk’s office. Any marriages entered into in a foreign country may still be upheld there.


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