If you've heard of the popular television reality show that follows four women married to the same man, you may wonder how their marriages are legal. The simple answer is that they aren't. Only one woman is legally married to the husband in the relationship and the others are defined as spiritual unions. Just the same, the state of Utah investigated the family, putting them under threat of criminal prosecution and jail time. Why are anti-bigamy laws so serious? What happens if you find yourself in a bigamous relationship by accident?
Why is bigamy a crime?
Bigamy is generally considered a crime against the government, rather than a crime against an individual. Legal marriage also confers other entitlements, such as Social Security spousal benefits and citizenship through marriage.
Because of the importance of the legal marriage contract, penalties for bigamy can include and heavy fines and substantial jail time. In the Utah case, for example, each wife could have served five years in prison and the husband could have served twenty.
While the law in Utah is still being disputed in court on appeal, the criminal laws of most states only address situations where someone has two or more (supposedly) legal marriage certificates and intentionally entered into a bigamous relationship. People who merely claim to be married spiritually aren't generally at risk of prosecution, nor are those who are in accidental bigamous relationships.
How does an accidental bigamous marriage happen?
In some states, in order to get married a second time, you have to give definitive proof that you are divorced or that your previous spouse died. However, not every state has this requirement, which has caused some people to enter into a bigamous relationship because they didn't realize that their first divorce wasn't finalized. It often happens when one spouse takes responsibility for filing the final paperwork with the courthouse and never does. A spouse who was missing and presumed dead might also resurface after a number of years, very much alive.
Occasionally, one spouse purposefully hides a previous, still existing marriage from the other spouse. In that case, the spouse doing the deceiving is guilty of bigamy, but the innocent spouse is only accidentally in a bigamous relationship.
What should you do if you find out that you're in a bigamous marriage?
If you find out that you or your spouse has another, still valid, marriage somewhere else, you have more than one option. The previous marriage automatically invalidates your current marriage, so you can technically walk away without doing anything (if you are so inclined). However, that could present problems if you have financial entanglements or children with your current spouse. You could also run into problems down the line if you seek to remarry. Even though your current marriage isn't valid, there would still be a marriage on record and you'd be required to prove that it wasn't valid to avoid possible charges of bigamy yourself.
If you intend to leave the marriage, you might consider getting a formal annulment. While an annulment is really just a legal declaration that your bigamous relationship is null and void (which you already know), going through the process provides you with the proof you might need later to show that the marriage was invalid. The process of annulment can also be used to ask the court to rule on things like child custody, child support, and the separation of property.
If you intend to stay in the marriage, the first thing to do is to find out what needs to be done to end the other marriage. In some states, once the divorce from the other spouse is finalized, your current marriage is automatically validated. In other states, you'll have to get a new marriage license and remarry.
If you find out that you're in a bigamous relationship, contact a family law attorney like The Law Office Of James R. Kennedy Jr. to discuss all the possible legal ramification and for advice on how to proceed.