What is Bigamy? - Definition, Laws & Cases

Instructor: Millicent Kelly

Millicent has been teaching at the university level since 2004. She holds a Bachelor's degree in Criminal Justice and a Master's degree in Human Resources.

Most of us grow up in a world where it's normal to share marriage with just one other person. This lesson will review the law related to double marriage, known as bigamy, and provide some case examples.


Kate met John at a party and they were immediately attracted to one another. After just six months, Kate accepted John's marriage proposal and they tied the knot a few months later. John moved from Texas to California, and they started their life together. About 6 months into her marriage, Kate started growing suspicious of John's frequent trips back to Texas. Although he claimed he was visiting a cousin, the trips seemed excessive. Kate started doing some online research about John and soon learned he was still legally married to another woman who happened to live in Texas. She confronted John who admitted to being married to the two women at the same time. Kate retained an attorney and filed for divorce based on John's bigamy.

What is Bigamy?

Bigamy occurs when a person is married to two people at the same time. Bigamy can be intentional, where one spouse marries a second spouse knowing full well their initial marriage remains legally bounding, or it can be unintentional, the result of an attempted divorce that was never legally finalized. In Kate and John's case, John's bigamy was intentional as he was fully aware that his prior marriage was still legally binding, and he was even visiting his other spouse on a regular basis. Bigamy is distinguished from polygamy, which is a more general term for living in multiple marriages, which may or may not be legally binding.

Bigamy and the Law

Committing bigamy in the United States is against the law, and those who engage in bigamy can be subject to criminal and civil penalties. In order for someone to be criminally prosecuted for bigamy it must be shown that:

  • A legal marriage exists between two people
  • The first marriage was never broken or ended in divorce
  • A second marriage was entered into and the second marriage was legally valid

Each state sets their own laws and sanctions when it comes to bigamy. Offenders can be sentenced to jail time ranging anywhere from months to years, or fines ranging from hundreds to thousands of dollars.

In addition to criminal consequences, civil consequences may also apply, especially if the marriages produce children. Children born out of either marriage in a bigamy case are often entitled to child support and can have legal rights to an estate upon a parent's passing.

It should be mentioned that the following can be considered valid defenses against bigamy:

  • a previous spouse's whereabouts have been unknown for a substantial period of time and it is reasonable to believe they may have passed
  • a legal good faith attempt was made to file for a dissolution of marriage but the party representing the spouse did not follow through and file the final required paperwork

Some Case Examples

The following are two case examples of bigamy incidents that have taken place within the United States.

The Sergeant and His Two Wives

An army Sergeant from Rockland, New York was honorably discharged from his position after it was discovered that he intentionally married twice. Scott Fuller forged documents to show he was single and used these documents to marry a woman in Korea. In fact, Sergeant Fuller had a wife and kids back home in Rockland. While both victimized spouses sought monetary damages, it does not appear that the army is pursuing criminal charges against Sgt. Fuller following his discharge.

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