As the wedding capital of the world, Sin City sees its fair share of bigamist marriages. Some stem from drunken escapades. Some arise after divorces that were never legally finalized. Some are the product of polygamist Mormon sects. And others are deliberately entered into by people exploiting Las Vegas’s quickie marriage license laws in a fraudulent attempt to gain assets and escape debts.
However it occurs, knowingly getting married to more than one person is a serious crime in Nevada. Through investigation, negotiation, and litigation, our Las Vegas criminal defense attorneys may be able to get the charges dropped without a trial.
The Nevada crime of bigamy is when someone intentionally has two or more spouses at the same time. And like it sounds, marrying the spouse of another is when an unmarried person marries someone he/she knows is already married to someone else. The court recognizes only the first marriage as valid.
Four possible defenses to Nevada bigamy charges include:
- The first marriage was annulled or ended in divorce or by death; or
- The defendant has not known for at least five (5) years whether the first spouse is living or dead; or
- The defendant honestly believed he/she was officially divorced prior to getting remarried; or
- The first marriage was void
Bigamy is a category D felony in Nevada, carrying a maximum of:
- 4 years in Nevada State Prison, and
- $5,000 in fines
Scroll down for a more in-depth explanation of bigamy laws by our Las Vegas criminal defense attorneys.
The United State Supreme Court in 1878 effectively outlawed any kind of plural marriage such as polygamy or bigamy. The legal definition of bigamy is the condition of knowingly having more than one husband or wife at the same time. Bigamist marriages are automatically void, and they have no effect on the validity of the prior marriage.1
Like every other state, Nevada outlaws bigamy. Specifically, NRS 201.160 makes it a crime to remarry if that person knows his/her first spouse is still alive.2 Conversely, NRS 201.170 makes it a crime for an unmarried person to marry someone that the unmarried person knows is already married.3 In short, deliberately entering a bigamist union is illegal.
A bigamous union is criminal only if either of parties knew that one or both of them was already married.
Example: Bradley is cheating on his wife with Mara, who does not realize that Bradley is already married. Bradley lies that work takes him away half the time, which allows him to lead a double life with his unsuspecting wife and mistress on alternate weeks. Mara really wants to get married though, so to placate her Bradley takes Mara to a chapel on the Strip and they get married. A co-worker of Bradley sees Bradley and Mara in their wedding garb and tips off the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police, who then arrest and book both of them at the Clark County Detention Center.
If caught, Bradley could get convicted for bigamy for knowingly taking a second wife. But Mara is not guilty of anything because she had no idea Bradley was already married.
In sum, the only people who can legally remarry in Nevada are those whose prior marriage ended in death, annulment, divorce, or was never valid to begin with. Nevada law recognizes marriages from other countries and common-law marriages from other states; therefore, people who married abroad or have a common law marriage still need to end their first marriage before they can remarry. Otherwise, they face criminal charges of bigamy.
Which defenses work best in fighting Nevada bigamy charges turn on the specific facts of the individual case. Four of the most common defenses include the following:
- First marriage is over. It is perfectly legal to marry as many times as one wants as long as any previous marriages have legally ended. As long as the defendant can show that his/her prior marriage ended in annulment, divorce, or the spouse’s death, bigamy charges should not stand.
- Five years with no knowledge rule. Sometimes a spouse abandons his/her family on purpose, and others have catastrophic accidents and are tragically never found. In either case, it is not criminal bigamy for a deserted spouse to marry again as long as at least five (5) years have passed during which the deserted spouse had no knowledge whether his/her absent spouse was alive. If the D.A. cannot show that the defendant knew or should have known that his/her first spouse was alive, then the bigamy case should be dismissed.
- No knowledge that prior divorce was not final. There are situations where both parties to the first marriage honestly believed they were divorced, but the paperwork was not correctly filed, or there was some clerical error precluding the divorce from legally going through. If the defense attorney can show the D.A. that the original spouses genuinely intended to divorce and reasonably believed they had completed the divorce process, chances are decent that any bigamy charges will be dropped because no one meant to be deceptive or fraudulent.
- First marriage was never valid. Any person who enters into a void marriage may legally marry again without having to formally end the original marriage because Nevada never recognized it anyway. One example of a void marriage is, of course, a bigamist marriage. So if the defendant can show that his/her first spouse was already married, it is not bigamy for the defendant to marry again (though the defendant could still be charged with violating NRS 201.170 for marrying the first spouse with knowledge he/she was already married.)
Example: Cousins Tommy and Gena get married in Henderson but soon split up. Tommy then gets married to Hannah, a non-relative. When Gena finds out, she calls the police and claims Tommy committed bigamy. The police then arrest Tommy and book him at the Henderson Detention Center for getting married to Hannah while knowingly being married to Gena.
In the above example, Tommy did not commit bigamy. A Nevada marriage is void when the two parties are related to each other closer than second cousins (or cousins by half blood). So once Tommy shows the court that his first spouse Gena was too closely related (“consanguine”) to him, he should be acquitted of bigamy because their marriage was null to begin with. Furthermore, Tommy’s marriage to Hannah remains valid because he was not legally married to Gena when he married Hannah. (Note that Tommy and Gena could then be charged with incest, which outlaws relatives closer than second cousins marrying.4)
Note that getting bigamy charges dismissed does not automatically legitimize the bigamist marriage. As long as someone is technically married when he/she exchanges vows with someone else, that successive marriage remains void irrespective of getting the criminal case dropped. So anyone acquitted of bigamy may still have to go through a lot of paperwork to dissolve his/her original marriage in order to be free to marry again.
Bigamy is a category D felony in Nevada. The punishment includes a sentence of:
- 1 to 4 years in prison, and
- maybe up to $5,000 in fines
Note that accused bigamists may also face civil lawsuits such as emotional distress and fraud.
Arrested? Call …
If you are facing bigamy charges, call our Las Vegas criminal defense lawyers for a consultation. We may be able to clear up this matter without a trial or a conviction.
Arrested in California? Read our article on Penal Code 281 PC.
1. Bigamy consists in the having of two wives or two husbands at one time, knowing that the former husband or wife is still alive.
2. If a married person marries any other person while the former husband or wife is alive, the person so offending is guilty of a category D felony and shall be punished as provided in NRS 193.130.
3. It is not necessary to prove either of the marriages by the register and certificate thereof, or other record evidence, but those marriages may be proved by such evidence as is admissible to prove a marriage in other cases, and when the second marriage has taken place without this State, cohabitation in this State after the second marriage constitutes the commission of the crime of bigamy.
4. This section does not extend:
(a) To a person whose husband or wife has been continually absent from that person for the space of 5 years before the second marriage, if he or she did not know the husband or wife to be living within that time.
(b) To a person who is, at the time of the second marriage, divorced by lawful authority from the bonds of the former marriage, or to a person where the former marriage has been by lawful authority declared void.
If a person, being unmarried, knowingly marries the husband or wife of another, that person is guilty of a category D felony and shall be punished as provided in NRS 193.130.
4 NRS 201.180 Incest: Definition; penalty. Persons being within the degree of consanguinity within which marriages are declared by law to be incestuous and void who intermarry with each other or who commit fornication or adultery with each other shall be punished for a category A felony by imprisonment in the state prison for a minimum term of not less than 2 years and a maximum term of life with the possibility of parole, and may be further punished by a fine of not more than $10,000.