What Happens When You Are Married & You Marry Someone Else?

Updated February 21, 2017

Love and marriage can be complicated. Falling in love with someone else while you are married is certainly not unusual. People may choose to have an affair, others seek marriage counselling and some may choose divorce. If none of these options are taken, a man could marry the new love of his life while still legally married to his first wife. The new couple could disappear and live a whole new life together or the husband may opt to live through two marriages concurrently. What happens when this is discovered can be emotionally, financially and legally damaging.

Law and Marriage

If you are married and then marry someone else without obtaining a divorce you are breaking the law in the United States and in many other countries. The correct term for this illegal act is bigamy. The law states that marriage is a legal contract, but by marrying again, you are effectively breaking your first contract of marriage and then entering into the second contract illegally.

In the case of Scoggins v. State 32 Ark 205 (1877) the Supreme Court of Arkansas stated: "A man takes a wife lawfully, when the contract is lawfully made. He takes a wife unlawfully, when the contract is unlawfully made, and this unlawful contract the law punishes."

Bigamy & Punishment

Bigamy is a class C felony, which in theory could mean that if you are convicted of bigamy in the United States, you could receive a fine of up to £65,000 or imprisonment for up to 40 years. The circumstances of the bigamy and the state in which it was committed have an effect on the sentence or punishment that is given.

There is a case in the heavily Mormon state of Utah, Snow v. The United States, which defines the terms of bigamy or polygamy (multiple marriages) and the punishment set for this crime with a fine of not more that £325 and imprisonment of not more than five years.

Bigamy and Religion

There has been much debate in regard to bigamy or polygamy among Mormons in the United States. On one hand, religious freedom is a right; but on the other, polygamy or bigamy is not tolerated by law. In 1878, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that polygamy among Mormons violated the law and religious liberty could not be used as a defence. The same principle applies to Muslims or any other religions that have polygamy or bigamy as part of their practice.

Bigamy, Tolerance & Technicalities

Despite what was previously written in regard to punishment in America, polygamy and bigamy often go unpunished among religious communities such as the Mormons, as cases become complicated by religious freedom rights and by the marriages not being a legal contract. Often polygamists will be punished for having sex with minors, as girls tend to be married much younger in these sects.

There are also other legal technicalities to be considered. If a spouse disappears and is presumed dead, state laws say that a spouse must wait seven years (five years in some states) to remarry. If you have been married and believe that you are properly divorced, then remarry only to discover that the divorce has not been finalised in some way, it is unlikely that you will be punished.

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About the Author

Zoe Van-de-Velde began writing in 1990 and contributes to eHow and Answerbag. Van-de-Velde has a Bachelor of Arts & Humanities in media and English from DeMontfort University. She is currently studying for a Master of Arts in creative media arts specializing in digital photography at the London South Bank University.