Bigamy is a legal term that refers to the condition of having more than one wife or husband at one time. Once a person is legally married, he or she must legally terminate that marriage before marrying another person. In the United States, the act of bigamy is a crime, and the marriage to the second spouse is subject to annulment, as well as civil and criminal consequences in some cases. To explore this concept, consider the following bigamy definition.

Definition of Bigamy

  1. noun. The crime of entering into marriage with one person while still legally married to another.

Origin  1200-1250       Middle English bigamie


What is Bigamy

Bigamy is the act of having two spouses at one time. If a person knowingly enters into a bigamous marriage, or she is committing a crime, though it is only prosecuted in special circumstances. The laws and punishments regarding bigamy vary by jurisdiction. Most incidents of bigamy are accidental, where a person who believes his first marriage has been legally dissolved, or that his first spouse is dead, marries someone else.

For example:

President Andrew Jackson, before he made a bid for the White House, married Rachel Robards, whose husband had filed for divorce. The couple had entered into marriage having been led to believe, by Rachel’s divorce from her first husband, Lewis Robards, had been finalized. After the couple had lived together in a technically adulterous relationship, Lewis Robards did file for divorce based on his wife’s supposed adultery and abandonment of the marriage.

Jackson and Rachel Robards, whose first marriage was nullified by the fact that she was still married to her first husband, were re-married in Tennessee. This bigamy scandal was the first ever scandal surrounding an American First Lady.

Difference Between Bigamy and Polygamy

Bigamy is the act of marrying someone while still legally married to another. This may occur with intent, but is more commonly seen in cases where the individual fully believes the first marriage has ended, and he or she is permitted to marry again. Even in cases where a bigamist is intentionally married to more than one person, the spouses usually do not know about each other.

Polygamy refers to a situation or lifestyle in which an individual has multiple spouses, all of whom know about each other, and often live together, or in close proximity to one another. Bigamy is usually a mistake, or an intentionally fraudulent situation. Polygamy is a chosen lifestyle. Polygamy is illegal in the U.S., except under practice of religion.

Bigamy Laws

Bigamy laws date back to the Roman Empire when Diocletian and Maximilian passed laws that mandated monogamy for legal marriages. The bigamy laws of some states treat bigamy as a felony, even if the individual believed he was legally able to marry again. A person who engages in bigamy can face up to five years in prison.

Fraudulently persuading another person to enter into a bigamous marriage is not only a crime, but civil wrong for which damages may be sought. A civil lawsuit for fraudulent bigamy may result in monetary awards to the victim for mental anguish, and pain and suffering.

Defenses to Bigamy

Someone who has been accused of bigamy may bring certain defenses to bigamy which, if accepted by the court, may reduce or eliminate his or her criminal or civil culpability. Some of the more commonly accepted defenses include:

  • The bigamist reasonably believes his previous marriage was dissolved by annulment, divorce, or death.
  • The bigamist has lived apart from his previous spouse for a certain number of years immediately prior to the recent marriage, during which time he did not know whether the first spouse was alive.

What to Do if a Bigamist Marriage Occurs

The actions of an individual who learns or suspects his spouse has committed bigamy depend a great deal on what the eventual goal is. If the individual desires to get the problem resolved and to be legally married, the necessary actions vary greatly from an individual who wants out of the bigamous relationship. Consulting with an experienced attorney is a good idea in either case. If the victim spouse wants to end the relationship, there is little to be done, as the marriage is likely not legal or binding to begin with.

If the bigamy was committed intentionally for fraudulent purposes, however, certain legal remedies may be sought. Once again, an experienced attorney can help such a victim understand his legal options, both civil and criminal. To pursue criminal charges against a bigamist, a victim should contact the local District Attorney’s office.

Army Colonel Charged with Bigamy

In 2012, Col. James Johnson III, a commander of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat team, was charged with 27 counts of bigamy, adultery, fraud, and forgery. Because all of the charges came after Johnson had an illicit affair with an Iraqi woman while he was deployed in Iraq, charges of wrongful cohabitation and failure to conduct himself as an officer were added.

Johnson’s problems started in 2005, when he met a local woman, and began helping her family, using government resources. The woman eventually fled wither family to the Netherlands, where Johnson made several attempts to visit her, going so far as to falsify receipts and vouchers in order to be reimbursed for his travel by the government. According to investigators, Johnson entered into a sexual relationship with the Iraqi woman, even though they were both married to other people, and that he had lived with her from 2011 to 2012.

The situation came to the Army’s attention when his American wife, the mother of his children, alerted officials in 2011, after learning her husband was living with the woman in Italy. After looking into allegations, investigators learned that the James Houston Johnson III and Haveen All Adin Al Atar were actually married in November 2011. At that time, Johnson’s marriage to Kris Johnson had not been dissolved.

At his 2012 hearing, 48-year old Johnson pleaded guilty to 15 counts of bigamy, fraud, and adultery, then he was convicted of two more charges in June 2012. At sentencing, the panel of five colonels sentenced Johnson to a fine of $300,000. If he fails to pay the fine, he will spend five years in prison. Johnson’s wife, realizing that, if her husband was dishonorably discharged, she and the couple’s two children would lose their benefits as well. Johnson was allowed to retire at a reduced rank, his military benefits intact.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Annulment – A formal declaration that annuls, or ends a marriage.
  • Civil Lawsuit –– A lawsuit brought about in court when one person claims to have suffered a loss due to the actions of another person.
  • Damages – A monetary award in compensation for a financial loss, loss of or damage to personal or real property, or an injury.
  • DefendantA party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
  • Jurisdiction – The legal authority to hear legal cases and make judgments; the geographical region of authority to enforce justice.