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What Are the Penalties for Bigamy?

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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 28 October 2014
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Bigamy is generally defined as the crime of marrying a person while already legally married. Though not considered a crime in all regions, bigamy is widely treated as a criminal act throughout much of the world. The penalties for bigamy range from fines to substantial prison sentences, though specific penalties vary by region.

The penalties for bigamy have actually lessened substantially over the years in some places. In the 19th century, up to seven years of penal servitude, including deportation to the Australian penal colonies, was among the possible penalties for bigamy in England, Ireland, and Scotland. Branding, whipping, and even capital punishment have been proscribed punishments for bigamy throughout history, though how often these punishments were used is not well-recorded. In medieval Spain, not only could bigamists suffer branding of the face, but also be subject to property and offspring seizure by the state, before being relegated to exile for up to five years.

In societies where the practice is frowned upon, penalties for bigamy have always been quite stiff. A bigamist is essentially perpetrating fraud against the state, causing a disruption in record keeping and, in some cases, upsetting the practice of inheritance and estate laws. Moreover, if the second spouse is unaware of a still-valid prior marriage, the bigamist may also be seen as causing him or her to enter into a legal agreement under false pretenses, which may be another form of fraud.

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Prison is one of the more common penalties for bigamy. In many jurisdictions, the crime is considered a high-level misdemeanor or low-level felony, and may result in jail time between one and ten years, depending on the region. In the United States, bigamy penalties are determined on a state level, and may be very different depending on the jurisdiction.

Fines are another common means of penalizing a bigamist. Though exact amounts vary, many fine structures range between $5,000 and $10,000 US Dollars (USD). Additional payments may be assigned to a guilty defendant, such as court costs and the legal expenses of the plaintiff. These fines may be issued in concurrence with jail time, or as a substitute for imprisonment.

Not all jurisdictions define the terms of the crime in exactly the same way. In some regions, it must be proven that the defendant was fully aware that he or she was still legally involved in a prior marriage. This type of distinction helps to rule out cases where a defendant never intended to commit a crime, but through mistake or misunderstanding, had not fully dissolved a prior marriage before entering a new union. In many jurisdictions, it is necessary to present evidence of the death of a former spouse or final decree of annulment or divorce in order to receive a marriage license, specifically in order to weed out cases of accidental bigamy.

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