One of the requirements before applying for a marriage license is the dissolution or annulment of all previous marriages.  If one intentionally fails to do this, it results in the crime of bigamy.  Bigamy is at the lowest level of felonies or highest of misdemeanors, equivalent to failing to register as a sex offender and stealing a dog, and the penalties can be less than a drunk driving conviction.

What Is the Penalty For Bigamy?

Penalties for bigamy are typically about 5 years of prison and a medium fine.  Some examples by state:

  • California - up to $10,000 or 1 year in jail.  The spouse of a bigamist can also be charged $5,000 if she or he knew that the bigamist was married.
  • Florida - $5,000 fine and/or 5 years in jail
  • Idaho - it is $2,000 or 3 years in jail.
  • Massachusetts – Fine of $500 and state prison up to 5 years.
  • Michigan – A year in prison and a fine up to $500.
  • Minnesota – 5 years in prison and/or $10,000 fine.
  • Mississippi – Up to 10 years in prison. Medical licenses revoked. Cannot be appointed to public office.
  • Montana – 6 Months in prison or $500 fine or both.
  • New Mexico – 2 to 7 years in prison.
  • New York – 3 to 4 years in prison.
  • Oklahoma - 5 years in jail.
  • Oregon - up to 5 years and/or $100,000 fines.
  • South Carolina - up to 5 years and/or at least a $500 fine.
  • Texas – 2 to 10 years in prison. Fine of $10,000.
  • Vermont - a sentence of not more than 5 years of prison.

How Is Bigamy Different from Polygamy?

Bigamy should be contrasted with polygamy and “polyamory,” which is when multiple husbands or wives voluntarily live together. Polygamy is when more than two people are in a marriage, but it is still one marriage. Bigamy, on the other hand, is when a person has more than one marriage at the same time. In bigamy the multiple marriages are usually kept secret by the bigamist. The bigamist has trouble ending one relationship before starting another, which tends to tear families apart.

Are There Any Defenses To a Bigamy Charge?

There is no national marriage database to immediately access a person’s marriage background when they apply for a marriage license.  Therefore, most states excuse a person who reasonably believes that her previous marriage had been dissolved through death, divorce, or annulment.  A person can also be excused if she had no contact with her spouse for 3-5 years, and for all she knew, he could have died.

Because bigamy can carry legal consequences, all marrying persons need to make sure that their previous marriage was dissolved, by ordering a notarized copy of the divorce decree from the county clerk’s office. You should consider speaking with a family lawyer to find out about your rights and options.