Married Once, Married Twice? What to Know About Bigamy and Polygamy

In certain locations and with certain cultures, being married to several different people at the same time is perfectly normal. Bigamy and polygamy are sometimes confused with each other, so read on and find more about the legal ramifications of such unions.

Bigamy and Polygamy Are Not Legal

No matter what you may have heard, neither of these creative takes on marriage are legal in any state or any manner. However, polygamists may not raise as many suspicions as bigamy does. Bigamy is when a person marries again without legally divorcing the first spouse. What makes bigamy differ from polygamy is that the second spouse doesn't know anything about the first spouse and may think they are legally wed. No legal marriage exists, however, except for the first marriage. While bigamy is against the law, the punishment for perpetrating a bigamous marriage is not very dire since it only rises to the level of a misdemeanor. That usually means a fine and no jail time.

Those who participate in polygamist marriages, however, not only know about the other spouses but live in close proximity to them – sometimes in the same household. As with bigamy, only the first marriage is legal and all others are more of a domestic union than a legal marriage. While illegal, law enforcement seldom enforces the laws and the punishments tend to be mild to non-existent. 

The Legal Ramifications

Unfortunately, spouses who marry bigamists have little financial recourse when problems come up. The courts won't allow those in a bigamous marriage to petition for spousal support. However, enough states have domestic partner laws that they might be able to ask for their share of property and have a way of coping with joint debts. Since bigamy is not considered a marriage, divorce is not necessary when the couple parts ways. If there are children of the relationship, however, the court treats the situation the same as if the couple were unmarried – meaning there is little to no difference in child support, custody, or visitation issues whether there was a legal marriage or not. When it comes to polygamy, the same rules about domestic partnerships and family law statutes apply.

If you are leaving a bigamous or polygamist relationship, speak to a family law attorney in your area about protection and financial support for your children and about your rights when it comes to property and debt.