What Exactly Are the Legal Consequences of Bigamy?

Do you know exactly what bigamy is? It’s the unlawful contracting of marriage by or with a person who’s already married to another. Are you intrigued? Read on to learn much more.
What Exactly Are the Legal Consequences of Bigamy?

Last update: 13 September, 2021

Bigamy isn’t a term most people are familiar with these days. If you do an Internet search for the term, you’ll likely get a host of polygamy-related results. However, bigamy and polygamy are different in a few key ways and they each have different legal consequences.

Firstly, the legal definition of bigamy is a situation where a legally married person enters into a second marriage. But without dissolving the first marriage. A person must end a marriage before marrying again, either by death, annulment, or divorce. Therefore, if a second marriage occurs before the first ends, the state can charge the person as a bigamist.

To clarify, bigamy differs from polygamy in that the former involves two separate marriages. But polygamy usually comprises one marriage with multiple people. Similarly, often, bigamists utterly deceive each other about the state of their current marriage. On the other hand, polygamous parties are usually all aware of the circumstances. Many cases of polygamy in the news are actually serial bigamists entering into multiple marriage contracts.

No dissolution or annulment

To clarify, every state in the United States has different requirements before applying for a marriage license. However, one of the main requirements before applying for a marriage license is the dissolution or annulment of all previous marriages. Therefore, if a person intentionally fails to do this, it can result in a crime. As mentioned before, bigamy refers to marrying one person while you’re still married to someone else.

In other words, America classifies bigamists at the lowest level of felonies or highest of misdemeanors. They even compare them to a sex offender. Most importantly, the penalties for this felony can vary by state. But they can often be less than the penalties for drunk driving conviction.

Firstly, to prove the crime exists, the court must prove the defendant was legally married to the first person. After that, the court must show the first marriage didn’t end. Similarly, often the defendant believed the first spouse was dead or didn’t finish the divorce proceedings. If the defendant proves they truly believed the first marriage ended, there’s no crime. 

However, if the defendant was aware the first marriage didn’t end and then entered into a second one, there are charges. Therefore, in America, misdemeanor bigamous results in up to one year in county jail. But felony bigamists spend up to three years in prison. In fact, courts base misdemeanor or felony bigamy on the level of deception involved.

Likewise, sometimes the other spouse isn’t aware the first marriage didn’t end. For example, often, the spouse wasn’t truthful regarding the first marriage. However, in situations where the spouse’s aware they’re entering into a marriage while the other party’s still married, there’s a crime. Thus, the state can charge both as bigamists.

An image of a bigamous marriage.

How to prove the crime

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 United States, it can be difficult to find documentation to prove bigamy.

Therefore, one of the easiest and most direct ways to prove bigamy is to produce the person’s original marriage certificate. You can also produce other legal documentation showing that they’re married. For example, other items like tax documents and other records showing you were married.

On the other hand, 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 people who saw the ceremony or marriage document.
  • Other evidence such as photos or video footage.

How it affects the spouse

To clarify, in the event that a second marriage is bigamous, that marriage is invalid. So, no one needs to do anything further to end the marriage. But the illegitimacy of the marriage results in the spouse losing all rights within that relationship. If the second, illegitimate marriage ends, the spouse’s no automatic right to a child or spousal support. Therefore, the spouse must pursue a civil case against their former partner. 

However, if the spouse was unaware of the first marriage and can prove it, there are no charges. In other words, if they had reasonable cause to believe the second marriage was valid, they can claim a putative marriage. A putative spouse has property and support rights similar to those of a normal spouse.

Most importantly, it’s imperative to seek legal help regardless of whether you were aware your spouse was a bigamist. So, if you were aware, you’ll likely need legal defense for criminal charges due to active participation in the crime. But if you were unaware and were the victim of deception, you may be able to pursue a civil case to retain your property or receive support from your former spouse.

Penalties for conviction in the United States

Firstly, bigamists can be charged as either a felony or a misdemeanor, depending on state laws. Secondly, penalties for bigamists will vary by state. But, they’re typically about five years of prison and a medium-fine. Some examples by the state include:

  • California. Up to $10,000 or a year in jail. 
  • Florida. $5,000 fine and/or five years in jail.
  • Idaho. Fines of $2,000 or three years in jail.
  • Massachusetts. A fine of $500 and state prison up to five years.
  • Michigan. Up to a year in prison and a fine up to $500.
  • Minnesota. Up to five years in prison and/or a $10,000 fine.
  • Mississippi. Up to 10 years in prison. 
  • Montana. Six months in prison or $500 fine or both.
  • New Mexico. Two to seven years in prison.
  • New York. Three to four years in prison.
  • Oklahoma. Five years in jail.
  • Oregon. Up to five years and/or $100,000 fines.
  • South Carolina. Up to five years and/or at least a $500 fine.
  • Texas. Two to 10 years in prison. Fine of $10,000.
  • Utah. Legal.
  • Vermont. A sentence of not more than five years of prison.

Thus, criminal penalties when convicting bigamists can vary widely depending on the jurisdiction and state laws. Penalties can sometimes increase under certain conditions, like if the person has previous bigamous convictions on their record.

Firstly, most western countries don’t recognize polygamous marriages and consider bigamy a crime. Likewise, several countries also prohibit people from living a polygamous lifestyle. For instance, this is the case in some states of the United States, where its criminalized.

In diplomatic law, they exempt consular spouses from polygamous countries from a general prohibition on polygamy in host countries. However, in some such countries, they only accredit one spouse of a polygamous diplomat.

  • Australia. Illegal, up to five years imprisonment.
  • Belgium. Illegal, five to 10 years’ imprisonment.
  • Canada. Illegal.
  • China. Illegal, up to two years imprisonment.
  • Egypt. Legal for men if the first wife consents.
  • Germany. Illegal and punishable by law.
  • Hong Kong. Illegal, up to seven years imprisonment.
  • India. Legal only for Muslim men.
  • Iran. Legal for men with wife consent. 
  • Israel. Illegal, up to five years imprisonment.
  • Italy. Illegal, up to five years imprisonment.
  • Libya. Legal for men with conditions.
  • Malaysia. Legal only for Muslim men.
  • The Maldives. Legal.
  • Malta. Illegal.
  • Morocco. Legal for Muslims, restrictions apply.
  • The Netherlands. Illegal, up to six years in prison. 
  • New Zealand. Illegal, up to seven years in prison.
  • Pakistan. Legal for men with some restrictions.
  • The Philippines. Legal for Muslim men, others face 12 years in prison.
  • Romania. Illegal.
  • Saudi Arabia. Legal for men only.
  • Somalia. Legal for men at marriage courts, a long-standing tradition.
  • South Africa. Legal for men.
  • Sudan. Legal for men only.
  • Taiwan. Illegal, up to six years in prison. 
  • Thailand. Illegal.
  • Tunisia. Illegal, up to five years imprisonment.
  • Turkey. Illegal, up to five years in prison.
  • The United Kingdom. Illegal, up to five years in prison.

In short, bigamy is a serious criminal violation, leading to various consequences. Are you a bigamist? Therefore, consider hiring a criminal lawyer in your area if you have any legal issues. He’ll provide that much-needed advice.

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