Introduction to Polygamy Laws in the United States

There are many restrictions on marriage in the United States. Up until 2014, gay married was illegal in nearly half the states in the United States.[i] Even though the law seems to catch up with marriage laws with many different types of relationships, there are still many restrictions on a marriage. One of those restrictions includes the inability for one person to many more than one other person, which is also known as bigamy. Bigamy in the United States is illegal, and could result in criminal prosecution.[ii]

General Marriage Requirements

polygamy weddingTo begin with, a marriage is a legally binding contract – between two people.[iii] There are many requirements to enter into a marriage contract.[iv] Many of those requirements are based upon the people who are entering into the contract. For example, each party must be of a consenting age.[v] This age will vary depending on the state, but the youngest a person can get married without the consent of their parents is 16 years old.[vi]  The majority of states have 18 years of age as the age of consent for marriage, but some states fall in between with 17 years of age.[vii] Also depending on the state, some parents may consent to their child getting married before the age of 16.[viii]

Next, in order to get married the intended couple cannot be too closely related.[ix] The laws that protect against this are the incest laws.[x] Incest is defined as a relationship between family members, specifically blood relatives.[xi]  This will include, parents, siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, nephews, nieces, and cousins.[xii] Distant cousins however may be excluded from the laws because the blood relation is so far distant between the two – much further than first cousins.[xiii] It is illegal in every state to marry blood relatives.[xiv]

Next, both parties to the marriage must have had the capacity to enter into the marriage.[xv] Keep in mind that entering into a marriage is a contract, and when anyone enters into a contract they must be aware they are doing so. Capacity to enter into a marriage simply means that both parties must have been of sound mind.[xvi] Most states will recognize that a mentally disabled person may not have the proper capacity to enter into a marriage – but this will depend heavily on that person’s disability. The same goes for a person who is mentally insane. Even drinking too excessively before getting married could render the party unable to legally consent to the marriage.[xvii] That situation will depend heavily on the facts of the case to decide whether or not they knew what they were doing, while they were intoxicated.  A common test to determine capacity is to see if the parties understand the nature of the marriage, and what their responsibilities are to their partners once they enter that marriage.[xviii]

In regards to documentation requirements, every state has varying requirements for different aspects of the creation of a marriage, but the standard procedure is to obtain a marriage license prior to the marital ceremony.[xix]  Every state will require the couple intending to get married to go to the Clerk of the Court to begin the paperwork to obtain the license.[xx] Most, if not all states will require a fee to processing.[xxi] Once the couple receives the license, there will be a time frame for how long the license will be good for – typically a year.[xxii] The marriage ceremony must take place within that time frame otherwise the couple will need to apply for the marriage license again.[xxiii]

Polygamy in the United States

One key factor to all of these requirements is that a marriage is a relationship between TWO people. Anything beyond those numbers is going to run into the issues of polygamy, which is illegal in the United States.[xxiv] Every state in the United States currently outlaws polygamy.[xxv] There are even some federal laws that prohibit polygamy.[xxvi] It is important to note that both state and federal laws exist against polygamy because this means that any person who is accused of polygamy, could potentially be prosecuted under two different jurisdictions.

definition of polygamyNow, enforcing these laws is not an easy task and is often times very hard to do.[xxvii] The culture of polygamy and those families is ordinarily very private, and so it is not common for prosecution to take place. If there is a desire from the state or federal government to prosecute someone for polygamy, it usually starts with targeting those who live with more than one member of the opposite sex.[xxviii] This type of suits prove to be very difficult, mainly because it starts to hinge on whether or not those multiple adults in the home are living in a roommate style manner or actually in a romantically involved scenario.[xxix] And even if the adults are all living in the same home, and are in a romantic relationship, there is a chance those individuals are not married to each other. Those types of relationships are defined as polyamorous relationship.[xxx] Currently, there are no restrictions against these types of relationships.[xxxi] Considering these type of relationships are defined by people not being married to one another, no laws are actually being broken.

Even though enforcing the laws against polygamy is difficult, there are no immediate plans of legalizing these laws. Many critics believe that the legalization of gay marriage was actually just one step closer to legalizing polygamy, and all of the types of relationships associated under that broad category.[xxxii] Whether or not there is any merit to this view is up for debate.

The Difference Between Polygamy and Bigamy

There are often times a lot of confusion between what polygamy and bigamy are. Polygamy is defined as actually a broader term that encompasses relationships that include multiple marriages, specifically more than two.[xxxiii] Bigamy, on the other hand, is a more precise definition. It is defined as one person, who is married to two people at the same time.[xxxiv] This could occur under a few different scenarios. First of all, this type of situation could occur if a person believes that they are divorced, when they actually are not, and they remarry. Legally, the person is married to two people, which would be considered bigamy under the law. This could be an innocent mistake, like they did not realize their attorney did not file all the appropriate documents or any other number of scenarios. There is also the scenario where the person who is married to two people, and is consciously aware of that.[xxxv]

Polygamy in the Public Media

 Now, as previously state, most polygamy relationships are very private. One group of individuals decided to let the world into their lives and share their polygamous relationship. This family was the Brown family. The Brown family was featured on the cable television station TLC with a show called Sister Wives.[xxxvi] The Brown family has one husband and four wives, or as the culture calls them – sister wives. Between the four sister wives, there are eighteen children.[xxxvii] Even though the husband is only legally married to one of the sister wives and spiritually married to the other three, they became the speculation of breaking polygamy laws in Utah.[xxxviii]

It is likely because of how public their lives became, that the state of Utah decided to start investigation of the couple for breaking those state bigamy laws. The investigation became so invasive into the lives of the Brown family, the entire family moved out to Las Vegas, Nevada.[xxxix]The state of Utah did eventually bring suit against the Brown family.[xl] The Brown family filed a federal civil rights suit under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983.[xli] The Brown family sought a declaratory judgment that stated their constitutional rights were being violated under the First and Fourteenth Amendment.[xlii] The declaratory judgment also asked the court to issue an order to block the prosecution from the state of Utah. The State of Utah actually did drop the case after this declaratory judgment was filed.[xliii]

There are other polygamous families that have been featured on the same television station as “Sister Wives”, but so far it has not been revealed whether or not those families have also faced similar prosecutorial issues.

Conclusion to Polygamy Laws in the United States

Even though the right to marry in the United States has a lot of flexibility with whom we can marry, where we can marry, and when we can marry – there are still a lot of restrictions in place in the United States. Laws against polygamy are still in full affect and have no future plans for becoming legal in the United States. Even though the terms are generally used interchangeable, polygamy refers to marriages between more than three people (one husband and three wives), while bigamy is between just two marriages (one husband and two wives).[xliv]

Sources Consulted

[i] See US Supreme Court Rules Gay Marriage is Legal Nationwide BBC News (Published June 27, 2015)

[ii] See NOLO’s Plain English Dictionary: Polygamy NOLO Legal Encyclopedia (Accessed August 12, 2016)

[iii] See Legal Requirements for Marriage  FAQ’s NOLO Legal Encyclopedia (Accessed August 20, 2016)

[iv] Id.

[v] Id.

[vi] See State-by-State Marriage “Age of Consent” Laws Find Law (Accessed July 15, 2016)

[vii] See Marriage Requirements, Licenses, and Ceremonies FAQ NOLO Legal Encyclopedia (Accessed July 15, 2016)

[viii] Id.

[ix] See Marriage Requirements, Licenses, and Ceremonies FAQ NOLO Legal Encyclopedia (Accessed July 15, 2016)

[x] See Incest Laws and Criminal Charges NOLO Legal Encyclopedia (July 15, 2016)

[xi] Id.

[xii] Id.

[xiii] Id.

[xiv] Id.

[xv] See Marriage Requirement Basics:  Consent, Age, and Capacity Find Law (Accessed July 15, 2016)

[xvi] Id.

[xvii] Id.

[xviii] Id.

[xix] See Marriage Requirements, Licenses, and Ceremonies FAQ NOLO Legal Encyclopedia (Accessed July 15, 2016)

[xx] Id.

[xxi] Id.

[xxii] Id.

[xxiii] Id.

[xxiv]See NOLO’s Plain English Dictionary: Polygamy NOLO Legal Encyclopedia (Accessed August 12, 2016)

[xxv] See Is Polygamy Illegal in the United States Legal Resources (Accessed August 20, 2016)

[xxvi] Id.

[xxvii] Id.

[xxviii] Id.

[xxix] Id.

[xxx] See Polyamorous Urban Dictionary (Accessed August 21, 2016)

[xxxi] Id.

[xxxii] See Is Polygamy Illegal in the United States Legal Resources (Accessed August 20, 2016)

[xxxiii] See What is the Difference Between Polygamy and Bigamy Quora (Accessed August 20, 2016)

[xxxiv] Id.

[xxxv] Id.

[xxxvi] See Sister Wives Wikipedia The Free Encyclopedia (Accessed August 22, 2016)

[xxxvii] Id.

[xxxviii] Id.

[xxxix] Id.

[xl] See 10th Circuit  Reverses Bigamy-Laws Win for Sister Wives Family ABA Journal (Published April 13, 2016)

[xli] Id.

[xlii] Id.

[xliii] Id.

[xliv] See What is the Difference Between Polygamy and Bigamy Quora (Accessed August 20, 2016)

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