Bigamy vs Polygamy: What’s the Difference?

Answer: Bigamy is the legal term for committing the criminal offense of entering into a marriage with the knowledge that one of the individuals to the married is already married to someone else, while polygamy is the term used to describe the practice of one individual marrying multiple individuals.

In practice there are many more differences between these two terms.

Bigamy vs Polygamy: What’s the Difference?


The contents of this web page are for informational purposes only, and nothing you read is intended to be legal advice. Please review our disclaimer about law/legal-related information on this website before taking action based upon anything you read or see.

What is Bigamy?

Bigamy is a criminal offense in all of the states of the United States, though the offenses vary in severity from state to state. .

This offense may be a felony or misdemeanor, and the case may be more serious if the minors, immigration, or fraud are involved.

The elements of the offense of bigamy may differ some from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but they are usually something like:

  • while legally married
  • an individual marries someone else other than his spouse in the same state, a different state, or different country,


  • knowing that another person is married
  • an individual marries said person in the same state, a different state, or different country

The statutes make it criminal for both the already married person and the person marrying the already married person.

Bigamy in Practice

It is possible for someone to commit bigamy openly, with the first spouse having knowledge of the second spouse.

That being said, in general (at least in the United States), bigamy tends to happen in two ways:

  • Intentionally: when the bigamy is intentional, it is something that usually occurs in secret, with attempts to prevent spouses on either side from finding out
  • Accidentally: when the bigamy is accidental (usually due to a mistake in fact or negligence), no one knows about it until it comes up

Bigamy may be practiced with knowledge between the spouses in the United States, but this is not talked about openly because the practice of having more than one partner is not accepted, and let’s not forget the criminal implications.

In general, bigamists tend to keep their households separate.

The second marriage is usually held in the same manner as the first marriage, meaning with all the trappings to make it a legal marriage under the laws of the state and country.

What is Polygamy?

Polygamy is the practice of one individual (usually a man) marrying more than one individual.

While bigamists tend to enter into a subsequent relationship in secret or by accident, polygamists tend to enter into subsequent relationships with the knowledge and approval of the current spouses.

While bigamists tend to keep their families/spouses separate, polygamists often reside in the some home or near each other, and their families mix.

While most bigamist marriages are held with the intent of making it a legal marriage, polygamist marriages are not often held in a way that would make them legal (meaning getting a marriage license, etc).

The polygamist marriage ceremony may occur without the trappings that would cause it to become a valid marriage under the law.

Polygamy is often a religious or cultural practice.

Are Bigamy and Polygamy the Same?

Depending on how you view the definitions of bigamy, bigamy could be considered polygamy and vice versa.

Bigamy is the practice of getting married again before a subsequent marriage was terminated by divorce, annulment, or death.

Polygamy is ALSO the practice of getting married again before a subsequent marriage was terminated by divorce, annulment, or death.

In the United States, we tend to use polygamy to refer to the folks who engage in the practice opening, while we use the term bigamy to refer to the crime.

For the purposes of criminal implications, bigamy can be used to charge an individual with the crime if the elements are met, regardless of how many wives someone has married before terminating the previously valid marriage.

Some states may have specific statutes aimed at deterring polygamy specifically, criminalizing the conduct even if the ‘marriages’ were not held with the trappings of a valid marriage.

Facing Bigamy or Polygamy Charges?

The best thing to do is confer with an attorney who has experience with both family law and criminal defense, as the needs of the client during such a case often overlaps both of these practice areas.

If the situation involves immigration issues, definitely confer with an immigration law specialist, as it is rare for criminal defense lawyers or family law attorneys to be well-versed in immigration law in addition to defense and/or family law.

Wrap Up

Want to learn more about your criminal justice system?

Browse our free legal library guides for more information.

You might also like:

Bigamy vs Polygamy