Bigamy 101: A Beginner’s Guide to Understanding Bigamy Laws

Katelyn Morgan

It is illegal in the United States to get into a second marriage while still being legally married to another person. Bigamy is illegal but more frequent than you may expect. In fact, as many as 4 out of 10 Americans have a step relative, and some of those marriages may have constituted bigamy, according to a research by the Pew Research Center. The National Center for Health Statistics also reports that bigamy accounts for about 2% of all marriages in the USA. This article will discuss the definition of bigamy, the legal prerequisites for marriage, the penalty for committing bigamy, and the possible defences in a bigamy case.

What is bigamy?

Marrying someone while legally married is bigamy. Fraud and marriage contract breach make it criminal. Most nations punish bigamy. Bigamy is a serious crime since it breaks the marriage contract. It harms couples, children, and marriage, making it a major crime.

Not all states recognize common-law marriages or spiritual weddings. Thus, in some nations, the offender may be guilty of bigamy if they marry a second spouse before divorcing the first husband, even if the previous marriage was not legally recognized. Bigamy, unlike polygamy, is illegal in most countries and jurisdictions, although not all.

Is the crime of bigamy a state or a federal offence?

State governments decide how to prosecute and punish bigamy, which is a criminal. Bigamy penalties vary by state. Bigamy can also be prosecuted under federal law. If a married couple moves to another state and continues to treat each other as husband and wife, they may be breaking federal law.

If it’s part of a larger crime, like immigration fraud, federal law can punish bigamy. In conclusion, bigamy can be a state or federal offence. You have to know the local state and federal laws and penalties.

How severely is the crime of bigamy punished?

Bigamy is punished differently in different places. Bigamy is a serious felony with serious penalties, including fines and jail time.

Bigamists are usually fined or imprisoned. A conviction might result in a large fine and months or years in prison. Criminal history and aggravating factors like dishonesty or fraud may affect sentence length.

Bigamy is a misdemeanour in many countries. These consequences could include a fine, a brief prison sentence, or no prison time.

In addition to legal sanctions, a bigamy conviction can have serious repercussions for the offender’s personal and professional life, including social stigma, difficulty finding work or housing, and harm to relationships with friends and family.

Bigamy can be worsened if it’s part of a larger crime, such visa fraud.

State and country laws govern marriage. Marriage requires more than two people, yet all marriages must meet certain conditions.

  • In the US, both parties must be 18 to marry. Some states allow 16- and 17-year-olds privileges with parental consent.
  • Both parties must understand marriage’s importance and potential outcomes. They must understand marriage’s commitments and not be pressured or persuaded.
  • Both parties must consent to marriage. They can’t be forced to marry.
  • Most nations require marriage licences. Marriage licences usually need a waiting time, identity verification, and age verification.
  • Legal marriages require a ceremony. A legally authorised person must perform the religious or secular ceremony. Common law marriage does not require a ceremony.
  • Marriage must be registered to be legal. The officiant does this, but the participants can too.

How can bigamy be proven in court?

Some examples of evidence that could be used to show bigamy in court include:

  1. Marriage certificates: Marriage licences can prove the first marriage. A second marriage certificate proves the person wedded while still legally married.
  2. Testimony of witnesses: Witnesses who saw both wedding ceremonies can testify that a marriage occurred.
  3. Photographs and videos: Courts may accept marriage ceremony photos or videos.
  4. Financial records: Even if they were legally married, combined bank account statements, tax reports, and property deeds might establish that a couple lived together as if they were married.
  5. Social media and electronic communications: Name-calling emails, messages, or other electronic communications delivered while the person was lawfully married.

What are some defenses to bigamy charges?

The following are some potential defenses to the charge of bigamy:

  1. Lack of knowledge: When they married again, the defendant may have been unaware that they were still legally married. The individual must demonstrate a reasonable belief that their past marriage was dissolved correctly to use this claim.
  2. Lack of intent: Bigamy charges may be dropped if the accused can prove they did not intend to marry again while married. One partner believes the prior marriage is invalid, or the other partner enters the ceremony casually or without genuine intent to construct a legal marriage.
  3. Mistake of fact: If they married someone they believed to be divorced or legally available, a person may be able to defend himself against bigamy charges.
  4. Duress or coercion: Bigamy charges may be dropped if the defendant can prove they were forced into the second marriage.
  5. Insanity or mental incapacity: Bigamy may be justified if the accused was insane or unable to comprehend marriage.

Can bigamy be used to annul a marriage?

Bigamy dissolves a marriage. Law treats cancelled marriages as if they never happened. In other words, a second marriage is invalid if one of the parties is already married. Bigamy invalidates marriages.

Annulments are not divorces. Divorce legally dissolves a marriage, unlike annulment, which simply denies it. In addition, annulment grounds and processes vary by country, so it’s wise to consult a family law practitioner about whether bigamy qualifies in your case.

Frequently Ask Questions

How does bigamy affect child custody and property rights?

Bigamy can ruin child custody and property ownership cases. If a judge declares a bigamous marriage illegal, the children’s legal rights and protections may be limited. Bigamy can also affect property rights by making second marriage assets illegitimate and subject to seizure.

Q: Can bigamy be expunged or pardoned?

Depending on the jurisdiction and situation, bigamy convictions can be overturned or forgiven. Some states erase or seal nonviolent crimes like bigamy after a certain amount of time. The conviction will remain on a person’s record if the governor or president pardons them.

Q: Can a bigamous marriage be recognized as valid after the fact?

If both parties were in good faith and unaware of a previous marriage, a bigamous marriage may be legal. The first spouse may be assumed deceased and the marriage recognised as valid in that jurisdiction if they had been gone for a long period. However, state laws vary, so consult an attorney about your circumstance.

Q: What is the difference between bigamy and polygamy?

Bigamy is marrying while married, while polygamy is having several spouses. Many nations criminalize polygamy. Polygamy is banned in the US but varies by country and culture.


Here are a few important references with links for more information on bigamy:

  1. Pew Research Center: “Modern Family Matters: The Rise of Stepfamilies in the U.S.”
  2. National Center for Health Statistics: “Marriage and Divorce: Data from the National Vital Statistics System”
  3. United States Code: Title 18, Section 2261A, “Interstate Domestic Violence”
  4. American Bar Association: “Bigamy and the Criminal Law”

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Katelyn Morgan is an experienced divorce attorney. She understands family law and helps couples get divorced with minimal stress and dispute. Katelyn Morgan has won high-asset and difficult property division divorce cases. She fights hard for her clients and gets the greatest results. Katelyn Morgan speaks at divorce and family law events in addition to her professional business.