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Is Bigamy a Felony in North Carolina?

Plural families have been in the spotlight in America over the past few years, in part due to several television shows that follow plural families.My Five Wives and Sister Wives are TLC television shows that follow the challenges faced by plural families in this country. For many viewers, it introduced them to the concept of plural families for the first time. Most Americans do not personally know anyone in a plural family and many people do not understand the difference between polygamy and bigamy, but there is a difference.

What Is The Difference Between Polygamy And Bigamy?

Polygamy

The families in My Five Wives and Sister Wives practice polygamy. Polygamy is typically based on religious beliefs that a man can and should have multiple wives. The wives are referred to as sister wives or designated by the order of marriage (i.e. first wife, second wife, etc.). Polygamists intend to have multiple marriages, even though the government does not recognize multiple marriages.

Therefore, one wife is legally married to the husband; however, the other wives are “married” in non-legal ceremonies that are only recognized by members of their religion, family, and/or friends. Litigation challenging the legality of polygamy continues to be filed and heard by courts in several states and the federal justice system.

Bigamy

On the other hand, bigamy is when a man or woman has two spouses. Bigamy is usually not associated with any specific religious belief. It is also different from polygamy in that the person intends to be “legally” married to two different spouses.

A bigamist actually goes through the process of obtaining a marriage license and securing someone authorized to marry people to conduct a marriage ceremony so the spouses can be legally wed. In many cases, the spouse seeking to marry two people often hides the other marriage from each spouse, but this may not always be the case.

Bigamy and Polygamy Crimes in North Carolina

There is not a specific criminal code section that refers to polygamy in North Carolina; however, polygamy is illegal under federal law. On the other hand, bigamy is a felony under North Carolina criminal statutes. N.C. General Statute §14-183states:

“If any person, being married, shall marry any other person during the life of the former husband or wife, every such offender . . . shall be punished as a Class I felon.”

The statute goes one step further to make “every person counseling, aiding or abetting” a bigamist subject to the same criminal charge as the bigamist. If you knowingly aid a person in marrying two different people, you can be charged with a Class I felony. A conviction of a Class I felony in North Carolina carries a minimum of three to twelve months in prison.

It should be noted that the bigamy statute specifically makes exceptions for the following situations:

  • For a spouse who has been continually absent for seven years and not known to be living during that time;

  • For a spouse who obtained a legal divorce; and,

  • For a spouse whose former marriage has been declared void by court order.

Are There Defenses To A Bigamy Charge?

Any criminal charge can be contested in court. However Bigamy is unusual because it belongs to a small category of crimes called, “strict liability offenses.” A strict liability offense is one in which a person’s intent to commit the crime is not relevant. The most common strict liability offense is speeding. With a speeding ticket, the question is how fast you were going and was that above the posted speed limit; it does not matter whether you intended to drive that fast or whether you thought the limit was higher. With a Bigamy charge, it is not a legal defense that you thought you were divorced when you got remarried or that you had no intention of being married to two people at the same time.

Nevertheless, the State must still prove the charge against you beyond a reasonable doubt. That means they must conclusively document both marriages, as well as prove that you were never divorced from your first spouse before marrying your second. As with any criminal charge, you should invoke your right to remain silent except for requesting your attorney. A criminal defense attorney provides you with the best chance of overcoming a bigamy charge in North Carolina.

Contact an Experienced Jacksonville Criminal Defense Attorney

“Attorneys Who Aggressively Protect Your Rights”

The criminal defense attorney of Welch and Avery can help if you have been charged with bigamy or other North Carolina crime. Perhaps surprisingly, we have represented several persons charged with Bigamy over the years, and will put that knowledge to work for you. You are not guilty of a crime simply because you were arrested and charged with a crime. You have the right to the presumption of innocence until the state proves its case against you. However, this does not mean you do not need to retain a criminal defense attorney. North Carolina prosecutors aggressively pursue all criminal charges. It is in your best interest to contact an attorney as soon as possible to protect your legal rights.

We represent clients throughout Duplin County, Onslow County and the surrounding communities. Call our office at (910) 405-8459 or contact us online today for a free case evaluation.

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