One of the main requirements before applying for a marriage license is the dissolution or annulment of all previous marriages. If one intentionally fails to do this, it can result in the crime of bigamy. Bigamy may be defined as marrying one person while you are still married to someone else.
Bigamy is usually classified at the lowest level of felonies or highest of misdemeanors, equivalent to failing to register as a sex offender. The penalties can vary by state, but they can often be less than the penalties for drunk driving conviction.
As mentioned, bigamy can be charged as either a felony or a misdemeanor, depending on state laws. Crimes that can be charged as either of these are known as “wobbler” crimes.
Penalties for bigamy will vary by state, but they are typically about 5 years of prison and a medium fine. Some examples by state include:
- California: Up to $10,000 or 1 year in jail. Also, the spouse of a bigamist can 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: Fines of $2,000 or 3 years in jail.
- Massachusetts: A fine of $500 and state prison up to 5 years.
- Michigan: Up to a year in prison and a fine up to $500.
- Minnesota: Up to 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.
Thus, criminal penalties for bigamy convictions can vary widely depending on the jurisdiction and state laws. Penalties can sometimes increase under certain conditions, like if the person has previous bigamy convictions on their record.
It can sometimes be complicated to prove that a person is still married to another person at the time of their new marriage. For instance, if the person’s previous marriage occurred outside of the U.S., it can be difficult to find documentation to prove bigamy.
One of the easiest and most direct ways to prove bigamy is to produce the person’s original marriage certificate, or other legal documentation showing that they are married. This can include other items such as tax documents and other records that ask if they are married.
In some cases, it can still be possible to prove bigamy charges even without a marriage document. For instance, the prosecutor can support the case using:
- Testimony from the first spouse;
- Testimony from the person who performed the marriage ceremony;
- Statements from persons who saw the ceremony or marriage document; and
- Other evidence such as photos or video footage.
Bigamy should be distinguished from polygamy and “polyamory,” which is when multiple husbands or wives voluntarily live together. Polygamy occurs when more than two people are in a marriage, but it is still one marriage as typically only one couple is legally married.
Bigamy, on the other hand, is when a person has more than one marriage happening at the same time. In bigamy, the multiple marriages are typically kept secret by the bigamist without the families involved being aware. The bigamist sometimes has trouble ending one relationship before starting another, which can tear families apart.
There is no existing national marriage database to immediately access a person’s marriage background when they apply for a marriage license. Therefore, most states will excuse a person who reasonably believes that her previous marriage had been dissolved through death, divorce, or annulment.
A person can also be excused from bigamy charges if they had no contact with their spouse for 3-5 years, and for all they knew, the spouse could have died. In some cases, the missing spouse may have been declared legally dead.
Because bigamy can carry strict legal consequences, all marrying persons need to make sure that their previous marriage was dissolved. This can be done by ordering a notarized copy of the divorce decree from the county clerk’s office. Be aware of any weddings or a marriage made in a foregin country, as they can still be upheld here.
Bigamy is often connected with various other legal issues. In particular, bigamy often occurs in connection with immigration fraud. For instance, a non-U.S. citizen may be looking to be involved in a marriage for marriage immigration purposes, in attempts to secure a visa or U.S. citizenship through a marriage route.
The person may involve themselves romantically with a U.S. citizen without disclosing that they are married in their country of origin. This can lead to various immigration consequences, such as removal from the U.S., and a loss of their visa status. U.S. citizens who knowingly and fraudulently assist a person in obtaining a marriage for immigration purposes may also face legal consequences.
Bigamy is a serious criminal violation that can lead to various consequences. It may be in your best interests to hire a criminal lawyer in your area if you have any legal issues involving bigamy. Your attorney can provide you with the needed legal advice and representation for your bigamy case.