You are on page 1of 4


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
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

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
 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.
 Defendant – A 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.