Bigamy – What It Is and What to do If You Find Yourself in This Situation
In December 2013, a federal judge invalidated a part of Utah's bigamy laws in response to a suit filed by the polygamous star of a TLC reality series. Salesman Kody Brown and his four “wives,” stars of the reality show Sister Wives, had been threatened with prosecution under the state's strict bigamy laws. They had sued in response, arguing that their religious rights were being violated, and the judge agreed.
Technically the Browns' plural family does not qualify as bigamy. Instead it is an arrangement called polygamy. But Utah's laws were written to make it illegal to even claim more than one person as a spouse, even if those claims were only spiritual in nature and did not involve a marriage license.
The judge agreed with the family's claim that this strict interpretation of bigamy violated their rights, citing the religious rights clause of the First Amendment.
This ruling effectively legalized the informal family arrangement known as polygamy. But true bigamy is still illegal in all 50 states. So what exactly is bigamy, what makes it different from polygamy, and how does the law view it?
From a legal perspective, bigamy is a very narrow concept. It is the act of being married to more than one person and having a (supposedly) valid marriage license for each marriage. This is true even if the first marriage took place in a foreign country. Oftentimes bigamists commit this act knowingly, and sometimes the spouses of a bigamist do not even know about each other. But no matter the situation, the second marriage is considered illegal and invalid.
But bigamy can sometimes be accidental, especially if you wrongly believed your divorce or annulment had been finalized or that your previous spouse was dead.
It's therefore always a good idea to make sure you get a copy of the finalized divorce or annulment documents to prevent this. Similarly, if your previous spouse was declared legally dead, a new marriage would not generally be bigamous even if the previous spouse turned out to be alive.
But just assuming you're no longer married can lead to accidental bigamy.
Bigamy is Different From Polygamy and Polyamory
There are a lot of terms used to describe being in relationships with multiple people or living as a plural family. And it can get confusing.
Bigamy is the only situation that involves more than one actual, supposedly legal marriage.
In contrast, polygamy and polyamory are simply informal arrangements between consenting adults.
Polygamy, which the Browns practiced, typically includes one legal marriage between two of the people involved. The rest of the “spouses” have spiritual marriages, without any marriage licenses from the state. Everyone involved knows about and consents to the arrangement.
Although polygamy is usually used to mean one husband with multiple wives, it can also mean one wife and multiple husbands. The terms polygyny (multiple wives) and polyandry (multiple husbands) are also used to describe these different circumstances. Polyamory is the broadest term, referring to love between multiple individuals. It can indicate any arrangement of people committed to loving others in their group. They don't necessarily make any claims of marriage. Members of the group may also be of any gender.
Bigamy Is Illegal
Of the different kinds of plural families/relationships, only bigamy is illegal. This is because it is the only relationship in which there is more than one marriage license from the state, which is a violation of the law.
State laws vary as far as the seriousness of the crime, but it's generally a misdemeanor or low-level felony.
Penalties also vary widely, but they typically involve fines from $500 to $10,000 and from 1 to 5 years in jail. Some states do have higher or lower penalties. For example, in Montana you may serve only 6 months in jail while Oregon considers bigamy a class C felony, which carries fines up to $125,000.
Many states have their laws posted online, and you can look up how your state treats bigamy.
What to Do If You Find Out Your Marriage is Bigamous
If you find out your spouse has another spouse somewhere, it's a good idea to first determine if yours is the first or second marriage. If it's the first, then your marriage is the valid one. You therefore have all the rights of a spouse, and if you choose to leave the marriage you can get a normal divorce.
However, if yours is the second marriage, then it is not valid. You are not legally married and you have none of the rights of a spouse. Since the marriage technically does not exist, you could just leave and never look back.
No matter the situation, it may be a good idea to take some legal steps to protect yourself and any children you may have. You'll want to check your local laws for specifics, but there are some general issues to consider:
Bigamy is grounds for an annulment, and getting an annulment can help protect your assets. It may also avoid future claims that you are a bigamist if you should remarry.
You'll want a formal custody agreement for your children. It may not be strictly necessary, but it can help avoid problems down the road.
You may be able to claim some of the assets from your relationship. Texas, for example, allows the “putative spouse” (the person who sincerely believed the marriage was valid) to seek a property division similar to what happens in a divorce.
Disentangling your financial life from your partner's could get more complicated if you own either property or debts together. On the other hand, if you want to stay in the relationship, the only way to make your marriage valid is for your “spouse” to divorce the other spouse. This may automatically convert your marriage into a valid one (Texas, for example, also allows for this under certain conditions) or you may have to remarry once the divorce is finalized.
Family law can get complicated and each state is different. If you have any doubts or questions about what to do if you think your spouse has another spouse, it's a good idea to consult a lawyer in your state.