Under California Penal Code 284, it is a crime to marry someone who is already married to someone else.1
You may have heard of the crime of bigamy—which consists of marrying someone while you are still married to someone else.2
The crime of “marrying the husband or wife of another” is simply the flip side of bigamy (defined in Penal Code 281). The person who marries the person committing bigamy is guilty under Penal Code 284.
Amazingly, PC 284 marrying the husband or wife of someone else is a felony in California law. Under California realignment, it is punishable by sixteen (16) months, two (2) years or three (3) years in county jail.3
But if you are charged with this crime, you may be able to fight the charges with one of these common legal defenses:
- You did not know that the other person was married; or
- There is insufficient evidence that s/he was actually committing bigamy.
In order to help you better understand the California crime of marrying the husband or wife of another, our California criminal defense attorneys will address the following:
If, after reading this article, you would like more information, we invite you to contact us at Shouse Law Group.
Under Penal Code 284 PC, the legal definition of “marrying the husband or wife of another” in California is:
- Getting married to someone,
- While she or he is still married to someone else, and
- Doing so knowingly and willfully.4
Basically, the crime of marrying the spouse of another is a bit like “aiding and abetting” the crime of bigamy—in that you violate California Penal Code 284 when you help someone else commit bigamy.
Penal Code 284 applies even if:
- The person you married is separated from or has tried unsuccessfully to divorce his/her first spouse,
- That person's first marriage occurred in another state or country, or
- That person's first spouse is okay with him/her marrying you.
Example: Matt and Sheryl elope when they are 18.
Within a year they have decided that the marriage is not meant to last. So they move into separate apartments and go their separate ways—without ever formally filing for divorce.
Ten years later, Matt meets Luisa. They fall in love and decide to get married. Sheryl, who has remained friends with Matt, is a guest at their wedding.
Luisa is guilty of the crime of “marrying the wife or husband of another”—and Matt is guilty of bigamy. Both of them could go to jail for this “victimless crime.”
However, you are not guilty of marrying the husband or wife of someone else IF:
- The spouse of the person you are marrying has been absent for five (5) years in a row; and
- During that time, the person you are marrying has not known for a fact that his/her spouse is still alive.5
Example: Nora is married to Frank and has a child with him. One day Frank leaves to get a gallon of milk and never comes back.
Nora contacts Frank's relatives, but they do not know where he has gone. She reports him as a missing person to the police, but they are unable to find him. She doesn't hear from him again.
Six years later, Nora becomes involved with a man named Jose. He asks her to marry him.
Jose can marry Nora without violating Penal Code 284—because Frank has been missing for more than 5 years, and Nora has no reason to think he is still alive.
And, of course, you are not guilty of marrying the husband or wife of another if his/her first marriage has been annulled, declared void, or dissolved by a court with jurisdiction to do so—including through divorce.6
Example: Ahmed is from a small village in Yemen. When he is still a child, his parents arrange for his marriage to his half-sister as part of a complicated family financial arrangement. The two never live as husband and wife
Ahmed eventually moves to the United States, leaving his wife/half-sister behind. Ahmed meets Rachel, an American woman, and asks her to marry him.
Rachel says yes, but before their wedding date she and Ahmed apply to a judge to have his first marriage declared void because it is would count as incest in California.7
Because of this, Rachel and Ahmed can get married without violating California's laws against bigamy and marrying the husband or wife of another.
Knowingly and willfully
You are only guilty under 284 PC if you acted knowingly and willfully.8
“Knowingly” means that you were aware that the person you married was still married to someone else. It does not mean that you need to have known that what you were doing was illegal.9
“Willfully” means that you deliberately and willingly married the other person. You do not need to have intended to break the law, harm anyone else, or gain any advantage.10
Example: Stanley becomes romantically involved with a woman named Paula. Paula tells him that she has been married before but divorced her first husband a long time ago.
So Stanley and Paula get married. Several months later, it emerges that Paula was lying to him—and in fact never got a divorce from her first husband.
Paula is guilty of bigamy. But Stanley is not guilty of Penal Code 284 marrying the wife of another—because he did not know that Paula was still married when he married her.
If you violate California Penal Code 284, the law against marrying the spouse of another, you will face California felony penalties.11
These could include:
- Felony (formal) probation;
- Sixteen (16) months, two (2) years or three (3) years in jail; and/or
- A fine of at least five thousand dollars ($5,000) and no more than ten thousand dollars ($10,000).12
You can avoid these harsh penalties—and the stigma of a California felony conviction—with the help of an experienced criminal defense attorney.
S/he may be able to help you beat charges of marrying the wife or husband of another with one of the following legal defenses:
You did not know the other person was married
According to Fresno criminal defense lawyer John Murray13:
“By far the most common defense to Penal Code 284 charges is that the defendant didn't know that the person they were marrying was still married. Often there's some ambiguity in the situation—maybe the defendant had reason to suspect that the other person was married but didn't know for sure. But you can't be convicted of this crime unless you knowingly married someone else's spouse.”
There is insufficient evidence
Many bigamy cases are not clear-cut either. And if the prosecutor can't prove beyond a reasonable doubt that your spouse committed bigamy, s/he also can't prove that you married the husband or wife of another.
For example, in many cases, the first marriage occurred outside of California or even outside the United States. A “smoking gun” like a marriage license may not be available.
The prosecutor can prove a previous marriage without necessarily producing the marriage license or other legal document14—but it may not be possible for him/her to do so beyond a reasonable doubt.
And a California jury cannot convict you unless that threshold is met.
Call us for help…
For questions about the crime of Penal Code 284 marrying the husband or wife of another in California, or to discuss your case confidentially with one of our California criminal defense attorneys, do not hesitate to contact us at Shouse Law Group.
We have local criminal law offices in and around Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange County, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, San Jose, Oakland, the San Francisco Bay area, and several nearby cities.
For information on Nevada Laws, go to our article on the Nevada Crime of Marrying the Spouse of Another.
1 Penal Code 284 PC – Marrying the husband or wife of another. (“Every person who knowingly and willfully marries the husband or wife of another, in any case in which such husband or wife would be punishable under the provisions of this chapter, is punishable by fine not less than five thousand dollars ($5,000), or by imprisonment pursuant to subdivision (h) of Section 1170.”)
2 See Penal Code 281 PC – Bigamy [related offense to marrying the husband or wife of another]. (“(a) Every person having a husband or wife living, who marries any other person, except in the cases specified in Section 282, is guilty of bigamy.”)
3 Penal Code 284 PC – Marrying the husband or wife of another, endnote 1, above.
See also Penal Code 1170(h) PC. (“Penal Code 1170(h) – Determinate sentencing. (“(h)(1) Except as provided in paragraph (3), a felony punishable pursuant to this subdivision where the term is not specified in the underlying offense shall be punishable by a term of imprisonment in a county jail for 16 months, or two or three years.”)
4 Penal Code 284 PC – Marrying the husband or wife of another, endnote 1, above.
5 Penal Code 282 PC – Bigamy law exceptions [also applicable to marrying the husband or wife of another]. (“Section 281 does not extend to any of the following: (a) To any person by reason of any former marriage whose husband or wife by such marriage has been absent for five successive years without being known to such person within that time to be living. (b) To any person by reason of any former marriage which has been pronounced void, annulled, or dissolved by the judgment of a competent court.”)
7 Family Code 2200 – Family relationship defined for California incest law [a reason to void a marriage under California bigamy/marrying the husband or wife of another law]. (“Marriages between parents and children, ancestors and descendants of every degree, and between brothers and sisters of the half as well as the whole blood, and between uncles and nieces or aunts and nephews, are incestuous, and void from the beginning, whether the relationship is legitimate or illegitimate.”)
8 Penal Code 284 PC – Marrying the husband or wife of another, endnote 1, above.
9 Penal Code 7 PC – Definitions. (“5. The word "knowingly" imports only a knowledge that the facts exist which bring the act or omission within the provisions of this code [including Penal Code 284]. It does not require any knowledge of the unlawfulness of such act or omission.”)
10 Penal Code 7 PC – Definitions. (“1. The word "willfully," when applied to the intent with which an act [such as marrying the husband or wife of another] is done or omitted, implies simply a purpose or willingness to commit the act, or make the omission referred to. It does not require any intent to violate law, or to injure another, or to acquire any advantage.”)
11 Penal Code 284 PC – Marrying the husband or wife of another, endnote 1, above.
See also Penal Code 672 PC. (“Upon a conviction for any crime punishable by imprisonment in any jail or prison, in relation to which no fine is herein prescribed, the court may impose a fine on the offender not exceeding one thousand dollars ($1,000) in cases of misdemeanors or ten thousand dollars ($10,000) in cases of felonies [such as marrying the husband or wife of another], in addition to the imprisonment prescribed.”)
13 Fresno criminal defense lawyer John Murray has been featured as an expert legal commentator on Fox News. He has successfully defended criminal cases in everything from petty theft to Penal Code 284 to vehicular manslaughter.
14 Penal Code 281 PC – Bigamy [related offense to marrying the husband or wife of another]. (“(b) Upon a trial for bigamy, it is not necessary to prove either of the marriages by the register, certificate, or other record evidence thereof, but the marriages may be proved by evidence which is admissible to prove a marriage in other cases; and when the second marriage took place out of this state, proof of that fact, accompanied with proof of cohabitation thereafter in this state, is sufficient to sustain the charge.”)