Define: Bigamy

Quick Summary of Bigamy

In UK law, bigamy is the act of marrying someone while still legally married to another person. It is considered a criminal offence under the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973. Bigamy is punishable by imprisonment, a fine, or both. Additionally, any subsequent marriages entered into while the original marriage is still valid are void. The offence of bigamy aims to preserve the integrity of marriage and prevent individuals from entering into multiple marriages simultaneously without legally dissolving their existing marital union.

What is the dictionary definition of Bigamy?
Dictionary Definition of Bigamy

Bigamy is a criminal offence that involves being married to more than one person at the same time. It is considered a form of marriage fraud and is illegal in most jurisdictions. The act of entering into a second marriage while still legally married to another person is a violation of the law and can result in criminal charges. The penalties for bigamy vary depending on the jurisdiction but can include fines, imprisonment, and annulment of the subsequent marriage. In some cases, the person who knowingly enters into a bigamous marriage may also be liable for civil damages. Overall, bigamy is a serious offence that is taken seriously by the legal system.

n. the condition of having two wives or two husbands at the same time. A marriage in which one of the parties is already legally married is bigamous, void, and grounds for annulment. The one who knowingly enters into a bigamous marriage is guilty of the crime of bigamy, but it is seldom prosecuted unless it is part of a fraudulent scheme to get another’s property or some other felony. Occasionally, people commit bigamy accidentally, usually in the belief that a prior marriage has been dissolved. The most famous case in the United States was that of Andrew Jackson and his wife, Rachel Robards. Ms Robards’ husband had applied for a divorce, but it had not been granted (it required legislative approval) at the time of her second marriage. She completed the divorce, and then the Jacksons remarried. Jackson was embarrassed for life over his carelessness (he was a lawyer and a judge), which had hurt his wife’s reputation. Having several wives at the same time is called polygamy, and being married to several husbands is polyandry.

Full Definition Of Bigamy

Bigamy, the act of marrying one person while still legally married to another, is a serious offence under British law. This overview will provide a comprehensive examination of bigamy, including its legal definition, historical context, statutory framework, criminal implications, defences, and societal impacts. Additionally, this overview will consider the practical and ethical dimensions of bigamy within the modern legal system.

Historical Context

The prohibition of bigamy in British law has deep historical roots, influenced by religious, cultural, and legal traditions. Historically, bigamy was condemned by the Christian Church, which emphasised monogamy as a cornerstone of marriage. The legal framework against bigamy can be traced back to the ecclesiastical courts in medieval England, which dealt with marriage-related offences.

In the 17th century, bigamy was formally codified as a criminal offence under secular law. The Bigamy Act of 1604 made it a felony, reflecting the serious view society took towards marriage and family integrity. This early statute laid the groundwork for subsequent laws that continued to criminalise bigamy.

Legal Definition

Under current British law, bigamy is defined as the act of marrying another person while a previous marriage is still legally valid. This offence is codified in the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, specifically under Section 57, which states:

“Whosoever being married shall marry any other person during the life of the former husband or wife shall be guilty of a felony, and being convicted thereof shall be liable to be kept in penal servitude for any term not exceeding seven years.”

This definition highlights three essential elements for an act to constitute bigamy:

  1. The existence of a valid first marriage.
  2. The act of contracting a second marriage.
  3. The first spouse is alive at the time of the second marriage.

Statutory Framework

The primary statute governing bigamy in the UK is the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. However, other legislative instruments also play a role in addressing issues related to bigamy:

  1. Marriage Act 1949: This act regulates the formalities and legality of marriages in England and Wales. It stipulates the requirements for a valid marriage and indirectly supports the prohibition of bigamy by ensuring that all marriages comply with legal formalities.
  2. Matrimonial Causes Act 1973: While this act primarily deals with divorce and matrimonial disputes, it provides mechanisms to annul a marriage on the grounds of bigamy, ensuring that victims of bigamous marriages have legal recourse.
  3. Criminal Justice Act 2003: This act influences sentencing and procedural aspects of criminal cases, including those involving bigamy, ensuring that punishments are consistent and appropriate.

Criminal Implications

Bigamy is classified as a felony, a serious criminal offence. Upon conviction, the penalties for bigamy can include:

  • Imprisonment: A person convicted of bigamy can face a prison sentence of up to seven years. The severity of the sentence often depends on the circumstances surrounding the offence, such as whether there was any deception or harm caused to the parties involved.
  • Fines: In some cases, fines may be imposed either in addition to or instead of imprisonment.
  • Annulment: The second marriage is considered void ab initio (from the beginning), meaning it is treated as if it never existed.

Defences to Bigamy

There are several defences available to individuals accused of bigamy, which can mitigate or negate criminal liability:

  1. Belief in Death of Spouse: If the accused genuinely believed that their previous spouse was dead at the time of the second marriage, they may not be found guilty of bigamy. This belief must be reasonable and based on credible evidence.
  2. Mistake of Law: In rare cases, an individual might argue that they were unaware that their previous marriage was still legally valid, for example, if they believed a foreign divorce was recognised in the UK.
  3. Duress or Coercion: If the accused was forced or coerced into the second marriage, they might have a valid defence against the charge of bigamy.
  4. Void or Voidable First Marriage: If the first marriage was either void or voidable (for instance, due to lack of consent, fraud, or incapacity), the second marriage might not constitute bigamy.

Societal Impacts and Ethical Considerations

Bigamy has significant societal and ethical implications, affecting not only the individuals directly involved but also broader social and legal systems.

  1. Family Integrity: Bigamy undermines the integrity and stability of the family unit. It can lead to emotional distress, financial complications, and legal disputes among family members.
  2. Legal Consequences: Bigamous marriages create complex legal issues regarding property rights, inheritance, and child custody. Resolving these issues often requires lengthy and costly legal proceedings.
  3. Ethical Concerns: From an ethical standpoint, bigamy raises questions about honesty, trust, and respect in marital relationships. It challenges the moral and cultural norms that underpin the institution of marriage.
  4. Immigration and Cross-Border Issues: Bigamy can also intersect with immigration laws, particularly when individuals from countries where polygamy is legal move to the UK. Navigating these cultural differences poses challenges for both individuals and the legal system.

Practical Dimensions

In practice, bigamy cases often involve intricate details and require careful examination of evidence. Legal practitioners must assess various factors, such as the validity of marriages, the intent of the accused, and any potential defences. This complexity necessitates a thorough understanding of family law, criminal law, and international legal principles.

Legal Reforms and Future Directions

The legal treatment of bigamy has evolved, reflecting changes in societal attitudes towards marriage and family. However, some aspects of the law may require further reform to address contemporary challenges:

  1. Recognition of Foreign Marriages: As the world becomes more interconnected, the UK legal system must adapt to recognise and reconcile differences in marriage laws across jurisdictions. Clear guidelines are needed to address the validity of foreign marriages and divorces.
  2. Public Awareness and Education: Increasing public awareness about the legal and ethical implications of bigamy can help prevent such offences. Educational campaigns can inform individuals about the legal requirements for marriage and the consequences of violating these laws.
  3. Support for Victims: Providing support and resources for individuals affected by bigamy, including legal aid, counselling, and social services, can help mitigate the negative impacts on victims and their families.


Bigamy remains a serious criminal offence under British law, reflecting the importance society places on the sanctity and integrity of marriage. While the legal framework provides robust mechanisms for addressing bigamy, ongoing reforms and public education are essential to adapting to changing social and cultural dynamics. By understanding the historical, legal, and societal dimensions of bigamy, individuals and legal practitioners can better navigate the complexities of this offence and contribute to a more just and informed society.

Bigamy FAQ'S

Yes, bigamy is illegal in all 50 states in the United States.

Bigamy is the act of marrying someone while still legally married to another person.

The consequences of committing bigamy can include criminal charges, fines, and imprisonment.

Yes, a person can still be charged with bigamy in the United States if they were married in another country and then marry someone else in the U.S.

Yes, ignorance of the previous spouse’s existence is not a valid defence against a charge of bigamy.

If a person remarries without receiving official documentation of their divorce, they can still be charged with bigamy.

Yes, common-law marriages are considered legally binding in some states, and marrying someone else while in a common-law marriage can still result in a charge of bigamy.

Yes, a religious marriage ceremony without legal registration is not recognized as a valid marriage, and marrying someone else can still result in a charge of bigamy.

Yes, marrying someone who is already married to another person constitutes bigamy.

Yes, marrying someone who is legally separated but not yet divorced can still result in a charge of bigamy.

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This site contains general legal information but does not constitute professional legal advice for your particular situation. Persuing this glossary does not create an attorney-client or legal adviser relationship. If you have specific questions, please consult a qualified attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.

This glossary post was last updated: 8th June 2024.

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