Love and marriage can be complicated. Falling in love with someone else while you are married is certainly not unusual. People may choose to have an affair, others seek marriage counseling and some may choose divorce. If none of these options are taken, someone could marry the new love of his life while still legally married to their first spouse. The new couple could disappear and live a whole new life together, opt to live through two marriages concurrently. Unfortunately, the repercussions of getting married when you already have a legal spouse financially and legally damaging.
Law and Marriage
If you are married and then marry someone else without obtaining a divorce, you are breaking a federal law in the United States. The correct term for this illegal act is bigamy. The law states that marriage is a legal contract, but by marrying again, you are effectively breaking your first contract of marriage and then entering into the second contract illegally.
In the case of Scoggins v. State 32 Ark 205 (1877) the Supreme Court of Arkansas stated: "A man takes a wife lawfully, when the contract is lawfully made. He takes a wife unlawfully, when the contract is unlawfully made, and this unlawful contract the law punishes."
Bigamy and Repercussions
Bigamy is a class C felony, which in theory could mean that if you are convicted of bigamy in the United States, you could receive a fine of up to $100,000 or imprisonment for up to 40 years. The circumstances of the bigamy and the state in which it was committed have an effect on the sentence or punishment that is given.
If you've committed bigamy, which occurs as soon as you've entered into a second marriage while the first is still in force, the offense can be prosecuted in the county:
- Where you committed bigamy.
- Where you've been apprehended or are held in custody.
- Where you reside.
- Where cohabitation occurred.
The punishment also changes depending on whether or not the crime was intentional. If you honestly believed your first marriage had been terminated by the time you entered your second, it might mitigate the repercussions for bigamy. If you knowingly committed the crime, however, you'd be subject to the full punishment of a fine, imprisonment or both.
Bigamy and Religion
There has been much debate in regard to bigamy or polygamy among certain religious groups in the United States, because some Mormons and Muslims practice polygamy as part of their religious beliefs. This sparks debate because on one hand, religious freedom is a right, but on the other, polygamy or bigamy is not tolerated by law.
In 1878, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that polygamy among Mormons violated the law and religious liberty could not be used as a defense. The same principle applies to Muslims and any other religions that incorporate polygamy or bigamy into their faith.
Bigamy, Tolerance and Technicalities
Despite the law, polygamy and bigamy often go unpunished among religious communities that accept or practice polygamy, due to the religious freedoms grey area.
There are also other legal technicalities to be considered. For example, if a spouse disappears and is presumed dead, state laws say that a spouse must wait seven years (five years in some states) to remarry. If you have been married and believe that you are properly divorced, then remarry only to discover that the divorce has not been finalized in some way, it is unlikely that you will be punished.