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What are the Legal Consequences of Polygamy?

Polygamy is the marriage to more than one person at a time, whether legally or spiritually, and it is currently illegal in all 50 states. The Arizona Constitution prohibits polygamous legal marriages, therefore making such marriages void (having no legal or binding effect). Let’s look at the relationship between Ryan, Amy and Sara to see how they are effected. (Ryan, Amy and Sara are fictitious characters for the purposes of this article, but their situation is not as rare as it may seem and these are some of the questions we have been asked here in Arizona and fall under Family Law.)

When Ryan and Amy were young they decided to get married. Things became difficult and after a couple of years they went their separate ways, intending to get a divorce, but they never actually did. They figured their marriage was so short, it didn’t really matter if they got a formal divorce. Ryan later married Sara. Ryan and Sara were married for 20 years and now they want to get a divorce too. Given the law against polygamy, where does that leave everyone? Are Ryan and Amy divorced because their marriage was abandoned over 20 years ago? Does the marriage between Ryan and Sara violate any laws? What happens to all of the joint property that Ryan and Sara acquired over 20 years? Is Amy entitled to that property as well? Are Ryan and Amy responsible for each other’s debts?

Ryan and Amy’s marriage will not dissolve on its own (despite the marriage having only been a couple years long), so their marriage was, and is still, intact. The subsequent marriage between Ryan and Sara is likely void because Ryan was married to Amy when he married Sara, therefore being married to more than one person at a time.

If Ryan and Sara’s marriage is void, do they need to do anything more than walk away from each other? That would depend on the property they have acquired over the last 20 years. If their marriage is void, then there is no community, so Arizona’s community property laws would not apply to the division of their jointly acquired property. However, if they were to move forward with an annulment of the void marriage, Arizona law would then allow a court to decide how to divide such jointly acquired property. This may be important to them if there is a large disparity in value of the property acquired over the last 20 years.

Further along these lines, if Arizona is a community property state and Ryan and Amy’s marriage is still intact, are Amy and Ryan responsible for each other’s debts that they have separately acquired over the last 20+ years? What about Ryan and Sara’s property – is Amy entitled to some of that? The community property laws in Arizona provide that upon divorce, all property acquired during the marriage is divided equally to the parties and the parties are equally responsible for all debts incurred during the marriage. Amy may have an argument that she is entitled to her half of the community property, and in the same respect, that Ryan and Amy are equally responsible for each other’s debts that were incurred during the marriage, despite Ryan’s subsequent marriage to Sara.

In addition to the above, Ryan and Sara may be convicted of a felony! Most states have a criminal code relating to bigamy. In other words, depending on the state, it might be a crime to hold more than one marriage license at a time. In Arizona, it is a class 5 felony to (1) have a living spouse and marry another, unless the spouse was absent for five successive years and you didn’t know whether they were alive; and (2) knowingly marry the spouse of another. We don’t have enough information to determine whether Amy was absent for five successive years or if Ryan knew whether she was alive, but based on the details above, it looks like Ryan could be convicted of a class 5 felony for marrying Sara and Sara could be convicted of a felony if she knew that Ryan and Amy were still married.

What a mess! If Ryan and Amy divorced years ago, or at a minimum legally separated, it would have saved everyone a lot of time, attorneys’ fees and headaches!