What happens if someone marries a second person before their first divorce is final?

Recently on our forum a user asked, “If I married a man but did not know he was already married can the man be charged with bigamy. If so, what are the charges and can I be charged with a crime as well?”

The notion of bigamy and polygamy have been around since the beginning of time, although the action was made illegal in the United States in 1878 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled “that plurality of wives (polygamy), as originally permitted by the Mormon religion, violated criminal law and was not defensible as an exercise of religious liberty.”

Polygamy vs. Bigamy

Some people use the terms polygamy and bigamy interchangeably, but they are not exactly the same. Bigamy is the act of marrying a second person while still legally married to someone else. For example, bigamy could occur if someone claimed to be divorced, their divorce was not final, but they married someone else anyway. Bigamy generally occurs without knowledge by the first or second spouse.

Polygamy, however, is being married to multiple spouses. In most cases, however, there is generally just one “legal” spouse and the other “spouses” are only married or recognized through a sort of spiritual ceremony. This most commonly occurs in the state of Utah where there are a large number of Mormons who have polygamous relationships.

In Utah, specifically, the police generally do not enforce any penalties against these families unless there is cause to believe that the safety of some of the participants may be in question. Controversy over the issue of polygamy has been front and center for several years, especially in Utah, where many polygamists seem to flaunt the violation of their state’s laws.

Can I be charged with a crime for bigamy?

So when has bigamy occurred? State laws may vary, but in the most general terms, bigamy occurs when one person, who currently is married to another person, purports to marry another person or cohabit with that person. In many states bigamy is a third degree felony, while in other states it may simply be a criminal misdemeanor.

Now, back to the question whether or not you can be charged with a crime if you entered into a bigamous relationship. It’s important to talk to a lawyer who is familiar with the laws of your state before making any decisions about your case, but generally, you can avoid a charge for bigamy if you reasonably believed that your spouse was legally eligible to marry.

Am I really married?

Another important question is whether or not you are legally married to your spouse?

If you are the second wife and your spouse’s first marriage is still valid, then your marriage is considered void, which means it can legally be annulled. Your “husband,” however, will remain legally married to his first spouse, unless he has legally filed for divorce.

Penalties for bigamy?

The penalties for bigamy vary by state. If your potential spouse is charged with a criminal misdemeanor they may face up to one year in jail, have to pay fines, or face other penalties. The charges can be much more serious, however, if it was a forced marriage of a minor or sexual abuse was involved. Talk to a criminal lawyer if you have questions about your rights.

How likely is prosecution?

Although bigamy is a crime and the guilty party may be charged, many states rarely press charges. Exceptions may exist, however, if the second marriage is part of a criminal attempt to steal another person’s property.

Does this mean you have no recourse against your “husband”? No, in fact, even if criminal charges are not filed, you may have the right to seek damages through a civil claim. Marriage is a contractual arrangement.  If one party fraudulently induces another party to enter into a bigamous marriage contract, the offended party may be able to prove breach of contract. If this breach resulted in damages, including pain and suffering, you may have a right to compensation.

Bottom Line:

If someone married you and they were already married to another person, they have committed bigamy. Bigamy a misdemeanor in some states and a felony in others. Whether or not they will be charged with a felony or misdemeanor, however, will depend on your state’s laws and whether your state’s prosecutor decides to press charges.

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