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What You Need to Know About Bigamy

Published Monday, Aug. 16th, 2021

You’ve heard the word, but do you know what it means... and how to avoid it?



Wedding officiants and soon-to-be-weds need to know a little about bigamy -- at least enough to avoid accidentally stumbling into a bigamous marriage ceremony. 


Bigamy is defined as “the criminal offense of willfully and knowingly contracting a second marriage (or going through the form of a second marriage) while the first marriage, to the knowledge of the offender, is still subsisting and undissolved.” (Thanks, Black’s Law Dictionary.)


Basically, it means marrying someone new, when you know you’re still married to someone else. And wedding officiants can also participate in a bigamous act by officiating a marriage ceremony for someone they know is already married. 


Now, most of us have heard of polygamy, which is the practice of having multiple married partners at one time. It was common practice among the Mormons before being outlawed, and has a long history that stretches back across many cultures and years. But bigamy is different. Bigamy is the legal term that’s frequently used in cases involving polygamy, because one has to take place before the other.


The main difference between polygamy and bigamy, at least to the average layperson (that’s us non-lawyer folks), is that most people in a bigamous marriage don’t realize they share a spouse with someone else. 


Bigamy is pretty uncommon in the U.S., and when it does happen, it’s usually accidental. People who stumble into accidental cases of bigamy are very rarely charged with any crime. 


So, why do you need to know about bigamy? 


Even accidental bigamy that doesn’t result in criminal charges is a real pain in the pants to fix, and it will render any subsequent marriages void. That means you’ll have to go through the hassle and expense of getting married all over again. Intentional bigamy can be charged as a felony, bringing multiple years in prison and large fines. Offenders in places like Utah, where bigamy was decriminalized in 2020, still pay substantial fees. All in all, we don’t recommend it.


Wedding officiants who knowingly officiate a bigamous wedding ceremony can face months of jail time and hefty fines. In Rhode Island, for example, ministers can face 6 months of incarceration, and up to $1000 in fines. (Check out more state marriage laws here.)


How to avoid unintentional bigamy


To avoid accidental bigamy, know some of the common causes before planning your new wedding: 


  • a person applies for a new marriage license under the belief that a divorce is finalized… and it’s not. Paperwork might have been started but not finished, or it may not have been filed correctly. 


  • a person assumes that holding a new marriage ceremony only a couple of days before a divorce is final is ‘close enough.’ A variation on this is when a person marries someone new and formally divorces an estranged spouse a few months or years later.


  • a person wrongly assumes their previous spouse is dead.


For couples, if you or your fiance have been married in the past, make sure that all your divorce and dissolution paperwork is finalized before you apply for a marriage license. If a previous spouse is deceased, make sure you have a copy of the death certificate on hand in case it’s needed. 


Wedding officiants can protect themselves from legal gray areas by asking to see a valid marriage license (issued by the county clerk) before the ceremony begins. Officiants should never conduct a wedding ceremony without having the couple’s marriage license in hand -- it’s the safest way to avoid not only accidental bigamy, but a misdemeanor charge, too! 




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Jessica Levey
Jessica Levey

Lead Staff Writer & Illustrator

Jessica loves exploring the history and magic of ritual, the connections between people and places, and sharing true stories about love and commitment. She's an advocate for marriage equality, LGBTQ+ rights, and individuality, and is an ordained Minister with AMM. When she’s not writing or illustrating for AMM, she enjoys city hikes, fantasy novels, comics, and traveling.

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