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What is Polygamy?

Polygamy refers to the act of being married to more than one person. Currently, every state has a law outlawing polygamy and the federal government also has several laws which criminalize the act of being married to more than one individual.

What are the Differences Between Polygamy and Bigamy?

Polygamy and bigamy are illegal in the United States. The terms “polygamy” and “bigamy” essentially mean the same thing and they refer to someone who has more than one spouse and in some states, the law uses these terms interchangeably. However, there are some legal differences between these two terms:

  • Bigamy is when someone marries more than one individual by going through the procedures set out by state law including by getting a marriage license. 
    • It may happen on purpose or by mistake such as not having a proper, legal divorce before getting remarried. 
    • Only if the marriage is dissolved through death, annulment or divorce, can someone legally enter into a new marriage. 
    • If someone intentionally fails to have the first marriage dissolved before they enter into a new marriage contract, they can be charged with bigamy.
  • Polygamy is when someone has one legal spouse as well as one or more co-spouses whom they married through some sort of marriage ceremony which is not legally recognized by the state. 
    • Unlike bigamy which often involves deception where one of the spouses does not know that there is another spouse, polygamy involves more than two individuals who know that the marriage will be comprised of more than two individuals. 
    • It is important to note that most states recognize common law marriages which refer to situations where you act like you are married such as by residing together, having children and telling friends and neighbors that you are married. 
    • If you are legally married to one individual and also have a common law spouse, then you are committing the crime of polygamy.

What are the Penalties?

The penalties for polygamy and bigamy can vary a great deal from state to state. It may be considered a criminal misdemeanor when no one’s life or safety is at risk and those practicing polygamy and bigamy may face a hefty fine, and/or imprisonment.

However, when spouses are forced to marry against their will and when they are not of legal age to marry, it may be a criminal felony which carries higher fines and longer jail sentences.

In Mississippi, a bigamy conviction can result in the revocation of that individual’s medical license and can make that individual ineligible for public office while in California, the second spouse can also be charged if they knew that their spouse was already married.

Under California law, bigamy is considered to be a “wobbler” which means that the prosecutor can decide to charge it as either a misdemeanor with a maximum county jail sentence of one year or a felony with a maximum prison sentence of three years.

In Utah, most famous for their issues with bigamy/polygamy, bigamy is considered a third degree felony. Which means that a person convicted of bigamy in Utah can face up to three years in prison and a fine of up to $5,000.

However, if the multiple marriage involved elements like domestic abuse, sexual abuse, fraud, or child abuse then it will elevate the crime to a second degree felony, which can result in up to 15 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.

Should I Contact a Lawyer?

Both polygamy and bigamy are illegal throughout the country and being married to more than one spouse involves serious legal consequences. If you have any questions regarding these issues, it is important to consult with a local criminal law attorney who can inform you about the relevant laws at the federal and state level.

Photo of page author Arvind Ravikumar

, LegalMatch Legal Writer

Last Modified: 07-03-2018 11:01 AM PDT

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