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Bigamy Law, Punishment & Defense

Bigamy Law: It is considered bigamy for a single person to marry another person who the single person knows, or reasonably should know, is already married to someone else. It is also considered bigamy for a married person to mary another person when the married person knows, or reasonably should know, that he or she is already legally married to someone else. Bigamy, also called a bigamous marriage, is not necessarily a criminal act. Bigamy is only a crime when the person knows that he or she is entering into a bigamous marriage.

This article is created to inform the reader of the law, the punishment, and the defenses to bigamy in both family court as well as in criminal court.

Family Court: Family court considers a bigamous marriage to be void and invalid. Bigamy is not charged as a crime in family court, but rather as an allegation that supports a request for annulment. An annulment, also called a nullity of marriage, is a request for the family court to recognize a marriage as invalid and voided (as if the marriage never occured).

Generally speaking, annulment paperwork is not needed to invalidate a bigamous marriage because a bigamous marriage is not valid in the first place; however, a person who entered into a bigamous marriage, but who otherwise did not know that he or she entered into a bigamous marriage, might want to be considered a pututive spouse (apparant spouse). This legal title allows the putative spouse to receive an equitable division of property similar to an equal division of community property in a divorce, and/or to establish paternity (fatherhood), child custody, and child support, after the presumption of paternity is dissolved when the marriage is annuled. See Annulment, Fathers' Rights, Patnerity Suits & Child Custody.

Note: Family law judges do not automatically refer bigamy cases to the criminal court because entering into a bigamous marriage is not necessarily a crime. For exmaple: husband attempts to obtain a divorce without following the proper divorce procedures. Thereafter, husband remarries without realizing that his prior marriage has not been properly dissolved. In this scenario, husband is not liable for criminal bigamy because criminal bigamy requires an element of knowingly entering into a bigamous marriage and the family law court does not.

Caution: When a person in a bigamous relationship threatens the other party to the relationship with exposing his or her crime of bigamy unless the guilty party forgoes legal process or pays money then the extorting party could be criminally charged with criminal extortion..

The burden of proof in annulment cases is a preponderance of the evidence, which means that the petitioner filing for an annulment only needs to prove to the family law judge that more likely than not the parties enter into a bigamous marriage, regardless of their intent to do so.

Warning: Any statement, oral or written, made in family court, may be used against the statement maker in criminal proceedings. Always seek the advice of a family law or criminal defense attorney before filing for a nullity of marriage based on claims of bigamy..

Bigamy in Criminal Court:

To prove bigamy in criminal court a district attorney must prove that the defendant knowingly entered into a bigamous marriage. The burden of proof in criminal court is proof beyond a reasonable doubt, which means that the district attorney must prove to an abiding conviction that the charge is true (A higher burden of proof than required in family court).

Sentence for Bigamy

In California, the crime of bigamy is considered a wobbler charge, which means that bigamy may be charged as a misdemeanor or as a felony. Both misdemeanor and felony bigamy charges are filed under California penal code section 281 (PC281).

Whether or not the district attorney files bigamy charges as a misdemeanor or as a felony depends largely on the circumstances of the individual case, including the level of deceit involved and the defendant's criminal history.

Felony bigamy criminal charges carry a maximum punishment of a three year jail sentence. Misdemeanor bigamy criminal charges carry a maximum punishment of a one year jai sentencel. In some criminal bigamy cases it may be possible to reduce the felony charge to a misdemeanor charge... even over the district attorney's objection. A probation sentence (without an actual jail sentence) may be possible in some cases. Any jail sentence is capable of being reduced up to fifty percent for good time behavior while in jail. Split and suspended jial sentences may be possible in bigamy cases.

In addition to a possible jail sentence, if found guilty of bigamy, the defendant could face any of the following penalties: loss or suspension of a professional license (doctors, dentists, lawyers, nurses, teachers, etc.), deportation or denial of reentry into the United States (for non U.S. citizens -  green card holders, permanent resident aliens, etc.), penalty fines and court fees, restraining orders, civil lawsuits, restitution orders, loss of right to own firearms (in felony cases), and more

Note: Criminal bigamy is considered a moral turpitude crime, which means that the law considers criminal bigamy as morally wrong and/or is a crime that requires deceit. Moral turpitude crimes in a person's criminal history are especially frowned upon by prospective employers, especially in the medical field. However, criminal bigamy is not considered a violentserious, or strikable offense, as those terms are defined under California law.

Defense to Bigamy Charges

Lack of Intent: It is not uncommon for persons to file for divorce without the assistance of a divorce attorney. Sometimes, this leads to improper use of procedures required to finalize the divorce; thus, the spouses remain unknowingly married. Thereafter, one of the spouses remarries without realizing that he or she is still legally married to his or her first spouse (because the first marriage was not finalized correctly). In this very typical scenario, the defendant facing criminal bigamy charges may argue that he or she had a good faith belief that his or her prior marriage was dissolved.

Other Common bigamy defenses: duress, intoxication, insanity, coerced confessions, insufficient evidence to prove intent due to uncooperation of witnesses, search and seizure violations (or other law enforcement errors), statute of limitations, and more.

For more information on bigamy law, punishment, and defenses, in both family court and in criminal court, contact out bigamy defense lawyers today for a free for consultations.


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What is bigamy? California divorce and family law lawyers explain the family law and criminal law consequences for bigamy.

Family & Criminal Bigamy Lawyers


Mon - Sat 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.

Free In-Office Consultations

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Updated July 17, 2021

Bigamy Law, Defense, & Punishment