Polygamy is the practice of being married to more than one person at the same time. It is generally divided into two subcategories: polygyny, where a man has multiple wives, and polyandry, where a woman has multiple husbands.
Getting a marriage license involving polygamy is not allowed in most countries, including the United States. In the U.S., polygamy is illegal under both federal and state laws.
The reasons for the illegality of polygamy in the United States are rooted in the country’s legal history and cultural values.
The U.S. legal system is based on British common law, which recognized only monogamous marriages. When the American colonies were established, they carried over many of these legal traditions, including the prohibition of polygamy.
The dominant religious groups in the United States have also historically adhered to a monogamous marriage model. These groups, particularly Protestant Christians, played a significant role in shaping early American laws and cultural norms, which contributed to the rejection of polygamy.
In the mid-19th century, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) openly practiced polygamy. The federal government, along with other religious groups, strongly opposed this practice. As a result, a series of laws were enacted to suppress polygamy, culminating in the 1882 Edmunds Act, which made it a federal crime to cohabit with more than one woman.
Opponents of polygamy argued that it had negative effects on women and children, including the potential for exploitation, abuse, and neglect. Prohibiting polygamy was seen as a way to protect the rights and well-being of women and children in these relationships.
Common-law marriages are informal, non-ceremonial relationships that are recognized as legal marriages in some jurisdictions, provided certain conditions are met. While common-law marriages can potentially involve polygamy, this would still be considered illegal in jurisdictions where polygamy is prohibited.
Prohibiting polygamous common-law marriages is seen as a way to protect the rights and well-being of the people involved. This is particularly important in common-law marriages, which may lack the legal protections and clarity provided by formal marriages.
What Are the Differences Between Polygamy and Bigamy?
Polygamy is the broader term encompassing the practice of having multiple spouses at the same time. It includes polygyny (a man having multiple wives) and polyandry (a woman having multiple husbands).
In cultures or societies where polygamy is accepted, it may be practiced openly, with all spouses aware of the situation and consenting to it.
Prosecution for polygamy usually occurs when the practice is discovered in a jurisdiction where it is illegal or when other issues like domestic abuse or child abuse are uncovered. Investigations may begin due to reports from concerned family members, neighbors, or members of the community.
Bigamy is a specific type of polygamy where an individual is legally married to two people simultaneously without the knowledge and consent of one or both spouses.
Bigamy often involves deception, as the person intentionally hides the existence of one marriage from the other spouse.
Investigations into bigamy may be initiated after one of the spouses discovers the other marriage through discrepancies in legal documents (e.g., marriage licenses, tax returns, or insurance policies) or during other unrelated investigations (e.g., divorce or custody disputes).
Both polygamy and bigamy are considered criminal felonies in many jurisdictions. The specific penalties for these crimes can vary depending on the jurisdiction.
- Law enforcement agencies may become aware of polygamy or bigamy through tips, complaints, or during other unrelated investigations.
- Investigations can involve gathering evidence such as marriage certificates, birth certificates of children, financial records, and witness testimonies.
- In some cases, law enforcement may use undercover operations or surveillance to collect evidence of the illegal marriages.
- Once sufficient evidence has been gathered, the case will be presented to a prosecutor, who will decide whether to file charges.
- Prosecutors will consider factors such as the strength of the evidence, the seriousness of the offense, and any related criminal activity (e.g., fraud, abuse) before deciding to pursue charges.
- If charges are filed, the case will proceed through the criminal justice system, with the defendant having the opportunity to plead guilty or not guilty, engage in plea negotiations, or proceed to trial.
- If the defendant is found guilty, the judge will impose a sentence based on the specific laws in the jurisdiction and any aggravating or mitigating factors present in the case.
- Polygamy: A man is discovered to have two wives living in separate households. Both wives are aware of each other and consent to the arrangement. However, in their jurisdiction, polygamy is illegal. Upon investigation, law enforcement finds evidence of the two marriages and prosecutes the man for polygamy.
- Bigamy: A woman marries a man without disclosing that she is already married to another man in a different state. The second husband discovers her deception when he finds her previous marriage certificate. He reports her to the authorities, who investigate the case and prosecute her for bigamy.
What Are the Penalties for Polygamy?
The penalties for polygamy can differ significantly depending on the jurisdiction and the specific circumstances of the case.
In general, those convicted of polygamy can face fines, imprisonment, or both. If there are additional issues such as domestic abuse, sexual abuse, or child abuse, the penalties can be more severe, including longer prison sentences, higher fines, and potential loss of parental rights.
Here are some examples of how these additional issues can impact the penalties faced by those convicted of polygamy:
- Domestic Abuse: If an individual involved in a polygamous relationship is also found guilty of domestic abuse, they could face additional charges and penalties. For example, they may be charged with assault, battery, or even aggravated assault, depending on the severity of the abuse. Penalties for these crimes can include fines, probation, mandatory counseling, and jail or prison sentences.
- Sexual Abuse: If a person involved in a polygamous relationship is found guilty of sexually abusing a spouse or other member of the household, they could face charges related to sexual assault, rape, or other sex crimes. These charges can carry significant penalties, including lengthy prison sentences, mandatory sex offender registration, and restrictions on where the individual can live and work after their release.
- Child Abuse: If an individual in a polygamous relationship is found guilty of child abuse, they could face charges such as child endangerment, child neglect, or even child sexual abuse, depending on the nature of the abuse. Penalties for these crimes can include prison sentences, fines, mandatory counseling, and loss of parental rights. In extreme cases, the person may be permanently barred from having contact with their children.
In each of these examples, the penalties for polygamy would be exacerbated by the additional charges related to domestic abuse, sexual abuse, or child abuse.
The severity of the penalties would depend on the specific laws in the jurisdiction where the case is being tried, as well as the unique circumstances surrounding the case.
Judges typically have some discretion in sentencing and may consider factors such as the defendant’s criminal history, the severity of the abuse, and the impact on the victims when determining the appropriate punishment.
Should I Contact a Lawyer?
If you are facing charges related to polygamy or are involved in a polygamous relationship and have concerns about your legal rights, consult with an experienced criminal lawyer. A lawyer can provide you with guidance on your specific situation, explain the applicable laws, and help you navigate the legal process.