California Bigamy Laws – California Penal Code PC 281

Posted by Raoul Severo | Oct 09, 2020 | 0 Comments

Marriage is considered the epitome of all romantic relationships. It is typically seen as the ultimate bond that a couple engages in. Legally, it is also a social contract where partners are lawfully required to follow a set of standards and regulations to qualify for several civic and social premiums. However, no matter how a person perceives marriage, it always serves as a binding contract that lawfully unites people. But, like everything else in the world, not all marriages are perfect. Some end just as fast as it started. Some are destroyed due to affairs that break the bond that the partners are supposed to follow, i.e., bigamy.


Bigamy (bi, meaning "double" or "two" and gamos, which means "marrying"), is the act of engaging in marital union with another person while he/she is still legally married to another. This usually happens when the person in question opted to remarry after filing a divorce, even if the petition's status is still pending. Until the divorce becomes final or absolute, he/she is still considered by the law as a married individual.

In some places in the world, Bigamy is culturally acceptable and is legally recognized with exceptions. However, in most countries, especially those norms are more affiliated with monogamous marriage traditions, Bigamy is a crime.

California Penal Code PC 281

In California, like in every other state in the US, bigamy is a crime. The state's justice system enacted California Penal Code PC 281 to be the law that criminalizes the act. The statute contains the definitions and conditions that are used to identify the crime.  It states that if a person with a still-living spouse married or entered a legally registered domestic partnership with another person, he/she is guilty of bigamy.

Exceptions to PC 281

A pending divorce status, legal separation, marriage happening in another state, and even consent from the first spouse to remarry are not valid conditions to justify bigamy. However, PC 282 stated some conditions that are excluded from the extent of PC 281. These are:

  • To any person by reason of any former marriage or former registered domestic partnership whose spouse by such marriage or registered domestic partnership has been absent for five successive years without being known to such person within that time to be living.
  • To any person by reason of any former marriage, or any former registered domestic partnership, which has been pronounced void, annulled, or dissolved by the judgment of a competent court.

Penalties and Consequences of Violating PC 281

Bigamy, as a violation of PC 281, is considered as a wobbler offense, meaning violators can be charged with either a felony or misdemeanor based on the verdict of the presiding judge. A misdemeanor is less severe in comparison to a felony. The former usually comes with time in the county jail and a fine of up to a thousand dollars ($1,000) while the latter is served in state prison and a fine of up to ten thousand dollars ($10,000).

Domestic relationships with a person legally married are fined with:

  • Prison time of 365 days (one year) in a county jail or state prison; and/or
  • A fine of a thousand dollars ($1,000) up to ten thousand dollars ($10,000)

Legal Actions

Aside from the burden of having to pay penalties and serve jail time, charges related to violating California Penal Code PC 281 can also tarnish an individual's records. The latter can significantly affect the chances of being granted social, civic, and economic premiums and privileges. That is why it would be wise for an accused to hire a competent defense lawyer to represent him/her in court. A bigamy trial involves nuances that only an experienced professional can settle.

The defense might include the following conditions to support the case:

  • The defendant has justifiable reasons to believe that his/her first marriage was already nulled
  • There the relationship did not meet the definition of bigamy according to PC 281

If you or anyone you know is facing bigamy charges, it would be in your best interest to get legal support from our roster of criminal defense attorneys at the Office of Raoul Severo.

Related Offenses

  • California Penal Code 284 – Willingly marrying a married individual
  • California Penal Code 285 – Incestuous marriage 

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