The Legal Consequences of Polygamy | Moshtael Family Law Orange County (2023)

What Is Polygamy?

“Polygamy” refers to the practice of having more than one spouse. The terms stem from the Latin roots polys—meaning “many”—and gamos—meaning “marriage.” The term broadly encompasses the concept of a woman marrying more than one husband (polyandry) or a man marrying more than one wife (polygyny).

The practice of polygamy is generally frowned upon in most countries. Those countries that legally recognize polygamy have populations where its practice is part of organized religion, namely denominations of Islam. However, other religions also recognize polygamy, such as small, unofficial sects of Mormonism. Notably, the official stance of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church)—the mainstream Mormon religion officially recognized in countries throughout the world—does not promote or condone polygamy.

Most countries that accept some form of polygamy limit legal recognition to the practice of polygyny but prohibit polyandry. The cultural practice of polyandry can be observed in cultures in Tibet, Nepal, and Northern India and is connected to systems of inheritance and land ownership.

Polygamy in any form is generally prohibited throughout the United States, warranting criminal and civil legal ramifications with varying degrees of severity.

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Family Law Implications of Polygamy

Marriage, thedivorce process, and other matters of family law are governed by state law. All U.S. jurisdictions prohibit polygamy by invalidating marriages involving more than two spouses. State laws against bigamy—getting married to someone while still legally married to another person—are usually grounds for an annulment.

Similar to divorce, an annulmentresults in the termination of a marriage. However, unlike divorce, a successful action requesting for an annulment can render the marriage null and void from its alleged inception.

Annulment actions are available for certain, extreme situations, including:

  • Bigamy
  • Incest
  • One or both parties haven’t reached the legal age to marry
  • Fraud, duress, and undue influence

Because the facts supporting an annulment are typically sufficient to treat the parties as if they never married under the law, issues that arise from the legal duties of a spouse in divorce cases may not apply to annulment proceedings in certain situations. This is because establishing a legally valid marital relationship is required to trigger certain marital duties, such as the duty to pay child and spousal support.

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However, in some cases, the parties may be entitled to forms of legal relief similar to those provided in divorce cases. Agreements between the “spouses” regarding certain marital duties might serve as a basis for legal action for certain remedies regarding contracts.

Criminal Prohibitions on Polygamy

Virtually every state has outlawed the practice of polygamy as an offense punishable pursuant to applicable criminal laws. Under California law, the act of bigamy is among the crimes listed together with other “crimes against nature,” and is punishable by up to $10,000 in fines and a jail sentence of no more than one year in year. California Penal Code § 281 defines “bigamy” to mean “having a spouse living, who married or enters into a registered domestic partnership with any other person…”

Since the 19th century, the practice of polygamy in the United States was subject to legal prohibitions, namely from the federal government. In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act into law, prohibiting the practice of bigamy. At that point, many Republican politicians campaigned on the idea that polygamy was the only other moral wrong next to slavery worthy of abolishing

.Then in 1882, President Chester A. Arthur signed the Edmunds Anti-Polygamy Act which reinforced the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act by classifying polygamy as a felony and establishing “unlawful cohabitation” as a misdemeanor offense which barred unmarried couples from living together. This made catching more unofficial polygamous acts easier by eliminating the need to prove the existence of a legal marriage.


These laws were specifically directed at the Mormon Church, which had come into conflict with the federal government when Utah was still a state territory. The Anti-Bigamy Act of 1862 also capped all church-owned property in the federal territories to $50,000—virtually all of which was attributed to the Mormon Church.

By 1887—only five years after passage of the Anti-Polygamy Act—the federal government passed a law aimed at disbanding the Mormon Church and seizing its property.

Constitutional Issues

Ever since the United States government issued the first federal prohibitions on the practice of polygamy—modernly re-termed by the LDS Church as “plural marriage”—proponents of the practice have tried to argue that such prohibitions amounted to an unconstitutional infringement of their right to the free exercise of religion under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

One of the first Supreme Court cases pitting freedom of religion against laws banning polygamy was Reynolds v. United States in 1878. In response to that argument, the Supreme Court held that the federal ban on polygamy did not qualify as an infringement on the religious rights of members of the Mormon Church, citing that the government was free to ban acts that coincided with religious practices without violating the First Amendment.

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Today, some people claim that banning polygamy violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Arguments in support of polygamy point that the fundamental right to marry as interpreted by the Supreme Court in the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges case provides the constitutional basis for decriminalizing plural marriage.

This idea was mentioned in the dissenting opinion for Obergefell, questioning why the right to marry should be afforded to LGBT couples without extending it to religions that practice some form of plural marriage.


What is the punishment for polygamy? ›

Polygamy is a crime and punishable by a fine, imprisonment, or both, according to the law of the individual state and the circumstances of the offense.

What is the punishment for polygamy in Florida? ›

Bigamy, which by definition is knowingly marrying a second person while already being married to another, is a third-degree felony punishable by a $5,000 fine and up to five years in prison.

What is polygamy and its effect family law? ›

He/she cannot keep more than one spouse at the same time. While a person is married to another person, he/she cannot marry another person. If he/she does so, then the second marriage will be considered illegal. And the first spouse can file a case against the spouse committing polygamy under the Hindu Marriage Act.

What is the law in California for polygamy? ›

Under California law, the act of bigamy is among the crimes listed together with other “crimes against nature,” and is punishable by up to $10,000 in fines and a jail sentence of no more than one year in year. California Penal Code § 281 defines “bigamy” to mean “having a spouse living, who married or enters into a ...

Why is polygamy a felony? ›

(“Bigamy” is the act of marrying someone while still legally married to another person, and it is usually the term used in laws against plural marriage. Polygamy is illegal because bigamy is. The words “bigamy” and “polygamy”—and their derivatives—are sometimes used interchangeably.)

What is the legal status of polygamy? ›

Polygamy as a crime originated in the common law, and it is now outlawed in every state. In the United States, polygamy was declared unlawful through the passing of Edmunds Anti-Polygamy Act of 1882.

How is polygamy prosecuted? ›

Because state laws exist, polygamy is not actively prosecuted at the federal level, but the practice is considered "against public policy". Many US courts (e.g. Turner v. S., 212 Miss. 590, 55 So.

Can you get deported for polygamy? ›

U.S. immigration law frowns on being married to more than one person at the same time, and prohibits both bigamists and polygamists from becoming naturalized citizens. Practicing polygamy as a legal permanent resident can lead to deportation, as can a criminal conviction for bigamy.

Are you legally married after living together for 7 years in Florida? ›

Florida does not recognize common law marriage, but the state does recognize any marriages that are validly entered into in other states.

What are the problems faced in a polygamous family? ›

It is a very common experience that discriminative behaviour of the husbands and unequal treatment with their wives causes several mental health issues in polygamous families. These are jealousy, poor marital satisfaction, unhealthy competition, lack of trust, and many other mental health problems [12].

Does polygamy violate human rights? ›

Polygamy is banned throughout much of the world, and the United Nations Human Rights Committee, which has said that “polygamy violates the dignity of women,” called for it to “be definitely abolished wherever it continues to exist.” But there often are limits to government administration of marriages.

What are the disadvantages of polygamous family? ›

Unhappiness, loneliness, sense of competition and jealousy, and lack of intimacy with the spouse were identified as disadvantages of polygyny.

What states is polygamy legal in us? ›

Currently, every state has a law outlawing polygamy. Additionally, the federal government has several laws that also criminalize the act of being married to more than one person.

What states are okay with polygamy? ›

Both polygamy and bigamy are illegal in every state, in spite of the fact that tens of thousands of people in North America are involved in multiple marriages.

Can a married man buy a house without his wife in California? ›

If real estate qualifies as separate property, a married individual may take title in his or her name alone. The deed should recite that the property belongs to that spouse as separate property. Although not a strict legal requirement, it is best practice for both spouses to also sign a Separate Property Agreement.

Why is polygamy unlawful? ›

This is because, according to the UN, polygamy undermines the freedom of women to marry who they wish with free and full consent. "Polygamy violates the dignity of women. It is an inadmissible discrimination against women.

Is polygamy a form of abuse? ›

Polygamy is associated with lower marital satisfaction and is known to involve sexual, physical, and emotional abuse on the part of the husband.

Is there a federal ban on polygamy? ›

The Edmunds Anti-Polygamy Act of 1882 (Edmunds Act) is a U.S. federal statute adopted in 1882 declaring polygamy as a felony in federal territories.

Where is polygamy not allowed? ›

It shows that polygamy is permitted in countries predominantly in Africa and Asia, including Algeria, Mali, Niger, Saudi Arabia and Iran. Europe, Australia and America are included in the areas where polygamy is fully outlawed.

Can 3 people get married in Florida? ›

Marriage to two or more people at one time is called bigamy, and it is illegal in Florida and all 50 states. Some countries do allow bigamy, but not the U.S.

Can you legally have 2 wives? ›

United States: Polygamy is illegal in all 50 states, De facto polygamy is illegal under federal law, the Edmunds Act. Utah, in February 2020, reduced polygamy to the status of a traffic ticket; nevertheless recognizing polygamous unions is illegal under the Constitution of Utah.

Is polygamy a crime? ›

Polygamy was outlawed under Section 494 of the Indian Penal Code of 1860, among several other progressive changes. Post freedom, the Hindu Marriage Act of 1955 outlawed the practice of polygamy among Hindus.

What is the difference between bigamy and polygamy? ›

Bigamy and polygamy are two different types of marriage practices, both involving marriages to multiple spouses. In a bigamous marriage, the two or more spouses are typically unaware of one another. In a polygamous marriage, two or more spouses are aware of each other's union to the spouse.

How does polygamy affect women's rights? ›

The practice of polygamy violates Article 3 of the ICCPR, guaranteeing equal rights for women and men, violates a woman's right to equality in marriage, and has severe financial effects on her and her children. CEDAW, Gen. Rec. 21, Para.

What is the punishment for bigamy in California? ›

Bigamy in California is prosecuted under Penal Code sections 281 to 283. Bigamy can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony punishable by up to one year in county jail or three years in state prison.

What evidence do you need to prove bigamy? ›

One of the simplest and most direct ways to prove bigamy is to produce the individual's original marriage certificate or any other legal documentation showing that they are married. This may include other documents such as tax records and other records that show whether or not an individual is married.

What is the statute of limitations on bigamy in California? ›

1) Incest or Bigamy

Statute of Limitations: No time limit. These types of marriages are never legally valid. An annulment will always be granted to nullify the union.

Is a sexless marriage grounds for divorce in Florida? ›

Although a sexless marriage is not listed in the law as a ground of fault for absolute divorce or divorce from bed and board, it can be strong evidence for a court to find constructive abandonment.

How long do you have to be married to get permanent alimony in Florida? ›

Although Florida case law varies when defining a long term marriage many cases support that a permanent alimony award is proper for marriages that have lasted at least 14 years. Generally, either the ex-husband or the ex-wife can be eligible to receive alimony.

Can I get alimony after 2 years of marriage Florida? ›

Durational alimony in Florida can be awarded in short-term or moderate-term marriages. It is alimony for a pre-determined amount of time and cannot exceed the length of the marriage. For instance, if married for two years, one spouse cannot receive durational alimony for more than two years.

What is considered a polygamous family? ›

Polygamy is defined as a marriage in which one spouse (man or woman) has several other spouses.

How does polygamy become a social problem? ›

The practice of polygyny is inherently discriminatory and violates a woman's right to equality. Polygamy is a social disorder that weakens a family unit, its structure and the value of marriage as an institution. And the social, spiritual, psychological and economic cost of polygamy in today's society is great.

What are the arguments against polygamy? ›


Many people would regard them as being unfair or exploitive of women in polygynous marriages, or to men unable to attract a wife of their own. Another convincing argument is that societies with too many unmated men tend to suffer from social instability due to intensified male-male mating competition.

Does the 14th Amendment protect polygamy? ›

The court in Brown also found that the criminalization of bigamous cohabitation (including polygamous living arrangements) violates the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment . Brown drew on the 2003 Supreme Court case, Lawrence v.

How does polygamy affect children? ›

The review found more mental health problems, social problems and lower academic achievement for children and adolescents from polygynous than monogamous families. Similarities between children and adolescents from polygynous and monogamous families included self-esteem, anxiety and depression scores.

What are the benefits of polygamy? ›

Polygyny has several economic, social, and health advantages over monogamy. In most cultures, women contribute significantly to the wealth of the household and can thus materially benefit from the labour of an additional spouse.

Does polygamy lead to violence? ›

A study from Emory University examined polygamous relationships in more than 170 countries and found increased levels of violence toward women and children. Abuse may come at the hands of the husband, and wives may also abuse each other.

What is the punishment for polygamy in the United States? ›

United States

Polygamy is a crime and punishable by a fine, imprisonment, or both, according to the law of the individual state and the circumstances of the offense.

What is sisterwife? ›

sister-wife (plural sister-wives) A woman who is simultaneously sister and wife to her husband. quotations ▼coordinate term ▼ In a polygamous marriage, a woman who is simultaneously the sister and co-wife of another.

What state has the most polygamous marriages? ›

Utah has had some of the most severe laws on polygamy in the nation. It also has the greatest number of people living in plural marriages – estimated to be in the thousands, though it's impossible to get precise numbers because many live in hiding.

Do polygamists have three ways? ›

Polygamy exists in three specific forms: Polygyny, where a man has multiple simultaneous wives. Polyandry, where a woman has multiple simultaneous husbands. Group marriage, where the family unit consists of multiple husbands and multiple wives of legal age.

Am I entitled to half the house if married? ›

It depends on who is named on the mortgage. This is called joint and several liability. You are both responsible and liable for paying the mortgage. That doesn't mean you are both liable for half each though – if one person doesn't pay their share, the other can still be held responsible for the whole mortgage.

Can I buy a house without telling my wife? ›

We often get asked: “Can I apply for a mortgage without my spouse?” The short answer is yes. Sometimes a married home buyer may want only to have their name on the mortgage.

What are my rights if my name is not on a deed but married in California? ›

If the wife's name is not on the deed, it doesn't matter. It's still marital property because it was bought during the marriage. This makes it marital property and is still split between both parties. The wife is entitled to receive either equal share or equitable share of the house.

Is polygamy prosecuted in the US? ›

Polygamy was outlawed in federal territories by the Edmunds Act, and there are laws against the practice in all 50 states, as well as the District of Columbia, Guam, and Puerto Rico. Because state laws exist, polygamy is not actively prosecuted at the federal level.

Can you have two wives in USA? ›

In the U.S., having spouselike relationships with more than one person under the same roof was criminalized in 1882. Today, people in the U.S. are rarely prosecuted for living with multiple romantic partners, but every state has laws against getting married while already being married to someone else.

Is there a federal law against polygamy? ›

The Edmunds Anti-Polygamy Act of 1882 (Edmunds Act) is a U.S. federal statute adopted in 1882 declaring polygamy as a felony in federal territories.

What states are OK with polygamy? ›

Both polygamy and bigamy are illegal in every state, in spite of the fact that tens of thousands of people in North America are involved in multiple marriages.

Why does the court not allow polygamy? ›

Congress had passed the statute against polygamy because it perceived that such a practice contravened good order and peace.

What is polyamorous vs polygamy? ›

In short, polyamory is the act of having intimate relationships with more than one person at the same time. A polyamorous person might have or might be open to having multiple romantic partners. Polygamy, on the other hand, involves being married to multiple partners.

Why are men polygamous? ›

Most men do so, because of their desire to have a larger number of offspring and most effectively increase their fitness by having many sexual partners. But for women, the reason ranges from having a better gene for their children to social progression and better access to the wealth of the man.

What is de facto polygamy? ›

Polygyny is the most common form, including de facto forms, where a person is formally monogamous but socially polygamous, maintaining additional relationships. Contemporary anthropologists explore polygamous kinship and gender relations and the law and politics of polygamy.

Why is bigamy illegal in the US? ›

The act was passed in response to the perceived threat posed by polygamy, which was practiced by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) in Utah.

Where is polygamy decriminalized? ›

Practicing polygamy in Utah is no longer a felony crime for the first time in 85 years under a bill that passed the Legislature on Friday, Feb.

Why should polygamy be allowed? ›

Each and every citizen, man and woman have a right to choose who they want to spend their life with and how they want to. By legalizing polygamy in independent countries to fit into the society people will have this right as well. Polygamous marriage allows a person to marry more than one spouse.


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