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

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 "sister wives" show, it goes on anyway. Essentially they mean the same thing - someone has more than one spouse. More often than not, it's when a man has more than one wife. In some states, the law uses the terms interchangeably. There are some legal differences, though:

  • Bigamy is when someone legally marries more than one person. That means they go through the hoops set out by state law, such as getting a marriage license, etc. It may happen on purpose, or by mistake, like not having a proper, legal divorce 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, etc. If you're legally married to one wife and also have a common law wife, you're committing the crime of polygamy.

Also, there are anti-cohabitation laws making it illegal for two people to live together and act as though they're married.

Overlooked?

Often, polygamists are left alone by the police, and the few states that have anti-cohabitation laws generally don't enforce them. There are a few reasons for this, such as the respect for freedom of choice - the freedom 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.

Not Overlooked

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.

Penalties

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?

Tagged as: Family Law, Matrimonial Law, polygamy questions, family lawyer