In cultures where monogamy is mandated, bigamy is the act of entering into a marriage with one person while still legally married to another.[1] A legal or de facto separation of the couple does not alter their marital status as married persons. In the case of a person in the process of divorcing his or her spouse, that person is taken to be legally married until such time as the divorce becomes final or absolute under the law of the relevant jurisdiction. Bigamy laws do not apply to couples in a de facto or cohabitation relationship, or that enter such relationships when one is legally married. If the prior marriage is for any reason void, the couple is not married, and hence each party is free to marry another without falling foul of the bigamy laws.

Bigamy is a crime in most countries that recognise only monogamous marriages. When it occurs in this context occasionally neither the first nor second spouse is aware of the other, although the majority are involved in plural marriages.[2][3] In countries that have bigamy laws, with a few exceptions (such as Egypt and Iran), consent from a prior spouse makes no difference to the legality of the second marriage, which is usually considered void.

History of anti-bigamy laws

Even before Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, Diocletian and Maximian passed strict anti-polygamy laws in 285 AD that mandated monogamy as the only form of legal marital relationship, as had traditionally been the case in classical Greece and Rome. In 393, the Byzantine Emperor Theodosius I issued an imperial edict to extend the ban on polygamy to Jewish communities. In 1000, Rabbi Gershom ben Judah ruled polygamy inadmissible within Ashkenazi Jewish communities living in a Christian environment.

In ancient China, bigamy was a punishable offence; however, concubines and mistresses were tolerated as long as they were not acquired through an official marriage. A man, at any given time, could only be married to one woman, and vice versa. Issue with the wife enjoyed preference in inheritance and social status.

Most western countries do not recognize polygamous marriages, and consider bigamy a crime. Several countries also prohibit people from living a polygamous lifestyle. This is the case in some states of the United States where the criminalization of a polygamous lifestyle originated as anti-Mormon laws, although they are rarely enforced.[4]

In diplomatic law, consular spouses from polygamous countries are sometimes exempt from a general prohibition on polygamy in host countries. In some such countries, only one spouse of a polygamous diplomat may be accredited, however.[5]

By country

  • Australia: Illegal. Up to 5 years' imprisonment.[6]
  • Belgium: Illegal. 5–10 years' imprisonment.[7]
  • Brazil: Illegal. 2–6 years' imprisonment.[8]
  • Canada: Illegal.[9][10]
  • China: Illegal. Up to 2 years' imprisonment, and up to 3 years for bigamy with soldiers (but tolerated for some minorities, such as Tibetans, in some rural areas in the south-west).
  • Colombia Illegal with exceptions (such as religion). Although bigamy no longer exists as a lone figure in the Colombian judicial code marrying someone new without dissolving an earlier marriage may yield to other felonies such as civil status forgery or suppression of information.[11]
  • Egypt: Legal if first wife consents.
  • Eritrea: Illegal. Up to 5 years' imprisonment.
  • All the 27 countries of the European Union (see special note for the United Kingdom): Illegal.
  • Germany: Illegal. Punishable.
  • Ghana: Illegal. Up to 6 months' imprisonment.
  • Hong Kong: Illegal. Up to 7 years' imprisonment.[12]
  • Iceland: Illegal.[13]
  • India: Legal only for Muslims but very rarely practiced. Up to 10 years' imprisonment for others except in the state of Goa for Hindus due to its own civil code.
  • Indonesia: Depending on the specific tribe in question, bigamy can be legal or illegal.
  • Republic of Ireland: Illegal. The offence was created by section 57 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861.[14] This section replaces section 26 of the Act 10 Geo. 4 c. 34 for the Republic of Ireland.[15]
  • Iran: Legal with consent of first wife. Rarely practiced.
  • Israel: Illegal for members of each confessional community. Up to 5 years' imprisonment.[16]
  • Italy: Illegal. Up to 5 years' imprisonment.[17]
  • Libya: Legal with conditions.
  • Malaysia: Illegal for non-Muslims under federal jurisdiction. Under section 494 of Chapter XX of the Penal Code, non-Muslim offenders found guilty of bigamy or polygamy can be punished up to 7 years' imprisonment. Bigamy or polygamy is legal only for Muslims with restrictions under state jurisdiction, rarely practiced.[18]
  • Maldives: Permitted for anyone.
  • Malta: Illegal.[19]
  • Netherlands: Illegal. Up to 6 years' imprisonment. If the new partner is aware of the bigamy they can be imprisoned for a maximum of 4 years.
  • New Zealand: Illegal.[20] Up to 7 years' imprisonment, or up to 2 years' imprisonment if the judge is satisfied the second spouse was aware their marriage would be void.
  • Morocco: Permitted for Muslims, restrictions apply.
  • Pakistan: Polygamy in Pakistan is permitted with some restrictions.
  • Philippines: Legal for Muslims. Others face 6–12 years' imprisonment and legal dissolution of marriage.
  • Romania: Illegal.[21][22][23][24]
  • Saudi Arabia: Bigamy or polygamy is legal.
  • South Africa: Legal under the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act, 1998 for customary marriages. Under civil law marriages (regulated by the Marriage Act), any marriage in addition to an already existing one is invalid (but not criminalized).
  • Somalia: Polygamy is legal at marriage courts; long-standing tradition.
  • Taiwan: Illegal. Up to 5 years' imprisonment.
  • Thailand: Prior to October 1, 1935, polygamy in Thailand could be freely practiced and recognised under civil law. Since its abolition, it is still practiced and widely accepted in Thailand, though no longer recognised, as the law states "A man or a woman cannot marry each other while one of them has a spouse."
  • Tunisia: Illegal. Up to 5 years' imprisonment.
  • Turkey: Illegal. Up to 5 years' imprisonment.
  • United Kingdom: Illegal, although marriages performed abroad may be recognised for some legal purposes (see Polygamy in the United Kingdom).
On indictment, up to 7 years' imprisonment[25] or on summary conviction up to 6 months' imprisonment, or to a fine of a prescribed sum, or to both.[26]


  1. "Definition of BIGAMY". Archived from the original on 28 September 2017. Retrieved 28 April 2018.
  2. George Monger (2004). Marriage customs of the world: from henna to honeymoons. Santa Barbara, Calif: ABC-CLIO. p. 31. ISBN 1-57607-987-2. Retrieved 2012-07-30.
  3. "Sex Offenses: Consensual - Bigamy". Law Library - American Law and Legal Information. Archived from the original on 2009-10-03. Retrieved 2009-05-10.
  4. Turley, Jonathan (3 October 2004). "Polygamy laws expose our own hypocrisy". USA Today. Archived from the original on 22 July 2012. Retrieved 2012-07-30.
  5. Shaw, Malcolm Nathan (2003). International law (5th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 684. ISBN 0-521-82473-7.
  6. "Marriage Act 1961, s 94".
  7. "strafwetboek" article 391
  8. Penal code of Brazil, Art. 235
  9. Criminal Code, sect 290.
  10. "CBC News in Depth: Polygamy". 2008-04-25. Archived from the original on 9 February 2009. Retrieved 2009-01-11.
  11. Redactora, Myriam Amparo Ramírez (24 February 2001). "La Bigamia". El Tiempo (in Spanish). Archived from the original on 5 October 2012. Retrieved 2012-07-30.
  12. "Offences Against The Person Ordinance Cap 212 s 45 Bigamy". Retrieved 2017-01-20.
  13. "Icelandic Act on Marriage No. 31/1993, Art. 11". Icelandic Ministry of Justice. 2008-01-09. Archived from the original on 2009-03-02. Retrieved 2009-01-11.
  14. This list of repeals and amendments in the Republic of Ireland from the Irish Statute Book Archived 2013-05-11 at the Wayback Machine confirms that it remains in force.
  15. James Edward Davis. The Criminal Law Consolidation Statutes of the 24 & 25 of Victoria, Chapters 94 to 100: Edited with Notes, Critical and Explanatory. Butterworths. 1861. Pages 276 and 277.
  16. Penal Law Amendment (Bigamy) Law, 5719 (1959), which applies to members of each confessional community, including the Jewish and Muslim. The English Law of Bigamy in a Multi-Confessional Society: The Israel Experience by P Shifman.
  17. Article 556 of Italian Penal Code.
  18. "Malaysia". Islamic Family Law. Emory Law School. Archived from the original on 2012-07-28. Retrieved 2012-07-30.
  19. Marriage Act of 1975, section 6.
  20. Crimes Act 1961, section 205.
  21. Romanian Penal Code, art 376
  22. "Art. 376 Noul Cod Penal Bigamia Infracţiuni contra familiei". Retrieved 28 April 2018.
  23. Also Civil Code of Romania, art 273.
  24. "Art. 273 Noul cod civil Bigamia Condiţiile de fond pentru încheierea căsătoriei Încheierea căsătoriei". Archived from the original on 25 March 2016. Retrieved 28 April 2018.
  25. The Offences against the Person Act 1861 (24 & 25 Vict. c.100), section 57; the Criminal Justice Act 1948 (11 & 12 Geo.6 c.58), section 1(1)
  26. The Magistrates' Courts Act 1980 (c.43), section 32(1) Archived 2012-01-11 at the Wayback Machine
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