For most, being married to one person is perfectly normal and forms the basis for a happy family life. For others, though, having more than one spouse is a way of life. But there may be consequences for choosing that lifestyle.
In the Open
Although both polygamy and bigamy are illegal, people still enter into these types of prohibited unions, whether voluntarily, like in the case of the hit reality television series, Sister Wives, or unwittingly; for example, where a wife discovers her husband never officially divorced his first wife.
In Utah, four women consider themselves the wives of the same man. And they share their stories and their lives in a popular reality TV show. The problem is, they may end up in court and prosecuted for committing a crime. And who can forget the story about the woman who found her husband's other wife on Facebook?
Polygamy and Bigamy
Polygamy and bigamy are illegal in the US, but as the Utah show Sister Wives proves, it goes on anyway. Many people use these terms interchangeably, but there are some differences.
Bigamy is when someone attempts to legally marry more than one person. This means they complete all of the state law requirements for a marriage, such as getting a marriage license and taking a blood test (where required), but the marriage is invalid because, whether on purpose or by mistake, one of the spouses never obtained a legal divorce from the first spouse before getting remarried.
Polygamy is when someone has one legal spouse and one or more co-spouses he married through some sort of spiritual marriage that's not legally recognized by the state
How It's Illegal
You may be asking: How can it be illegal if the spiritual marriage is legally invalid? Most states recognize common law marriages, where you act like you're married - live together, have children, tell friends and neighbors you're married. If you're legally married to one wife and also have a common law wife, you're committing the crime of polygamy.
Often, polygamists are left alone by the police. There are a few reasons for this, such as the respect for freedom of choice, and to choose your own lifestyle. Freedom of religion also plays a role. Polygamy is acceptable in some religions, from the mainstream, like Islam, to the not-so-mainstream, like certain cults.
It's not overlooked, however, when the lives or safety of others are at stake, or the public's faith in the local government is weakened. For example, in 2008, law enforcement agents in Texas raided a polygamist compound after a 14-year-old wife made an emergency call for help.
And in the Utah sisters' case, flaunting their violation of state law on national TV may spark legal action by state prosecutors to show the public that polygamy is in fact illegal and that state laws mean something.
Another situation when it won't - and can't - be ignored is when it comes to divorce, child custody or child support. When there's more than one spouse and/or multiple children by more than one spouse, who's entitled to alimony, custody or child support payments? A court can hold a polygamist husband responsible for all of it.
The penalties for polygamy and bigotry vary a great deal from state to state. It may be considered a criminal misdemeanor, such as when no one's life or safety is at risk. The polygamist, and perhaps the spouses, may face a fine, up to a year jail, or both.
When wives or spouses are forced to marry against their will or aren't of legal age to marry, it may be a criminal felony, which may carry a higher fine and longer jail sentence. Not to mention other criminal charges, like sexual abuse, for instance.
Before Facebook, Twitter, reality TV and the internet, people could generally keep their business to themselves and do pretty much what they wanted without much interference. When you flaunt your lifestyle on TV or Facebook, you might want to rethink your life choices when they're illegal.
Questions for Your Attorney
- How do I know for sure if the man who's proposing to me is not already legally married?
- If my husband turns out to be a bigamist, can I sue him for damages besides getting a divorce?
- Has the Supreme Court ever decided if polygamy is part of the free exercise of religion?