What Are the Legal Consequences of Bigamy?

Bigamy is not a term most people are familiar with these days. In fact, perform an internet search for the term bigamy, and you will likely get a host of polygamy-related results. However, bigamy and polygamy are different in a few key ways, and carry with them different legal consequences.

What Is Bigamy?

The legal definition of bigamy is a situation in which one person, legally married, enters into a second marriage contract with another without dissolving the first. A person must end a marriage before marrying again, either by death, annulment, or divorce. If a second marriage occurs before the first ends, the state can charge the person with bigamy.

Bigamy differs from polygamy in that bigamy involves two separate marriages, while polygamy usually comprises one marriage with multiple people. Often, bigamy involves one party deceiving the other about the state of their current marriage, while polygamy’s involved parties are usually all aware of the circumstances. Many cases of polygamy in the news are actually serial bigamists entering into multiple marriage contracts.

What Are the Legal Consequences for Bigamists in California?

To prove bigamy exists, the court must prove the defendant was legally married to the first person. Then, the court must show the first marriage never ended. In some cases, the defendant may have believed the first spouse to be dead, or failed to finish divorce proceedings; if the defendant can prove he or she had reasonable grounds to believe the first marriage had ended, bigamy may no longer be a consideration.

However, if the defendant was aware the first marriage had not ended and then entered into a second marriage, he or she may receive bigamy charges. In California, misdemeanor bigamy results in up to one year in county jail, while felony bigamy results in up to three years in prison. Courts base misdemeanor or felony bigamy on the level of deception involved.

In some cases, the other spouse is not aware the first marriage had not ended, or the spouse had not been truthful regarding the first marriage. However, in situations where the spouse is aware they are entering into a marriage while the other party is still legally married, the state can charge both with bigamy.

How Does Bigamy Affect the Bigamist’s Spouse?

In the event that a second marriage is bigamous, that marriage is invalid. 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 has no automatic right to child or spousal support. In many cases, the spouse must pursue a civil case against their former partner. If the spouse was unaware of the first marriage and can prove he or she had reasonable cause to believe the second marriage was valid, they may be able to claim a putative marriage. A putative spouse has property and support rights similar to those of a normal spouse.

It is important to seek legal help regardless of whether you were aware of a former spouse’s bigamy. If you were aware, you will likely need a legal defense for criminal charges due to active participation in bigamy. 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.

Contact a defense or divorce attorney depending on your situation before filing any legal paperwork. Legal assistance is essential in determining what your next steps should be.