How does bigamy affect marriage and divorce?

Bigamy is the act of marrying someone while still being legally married to another person. This is a serious criminal offence which is punishable by law. Despite this, bigamy is still a problem, with many people falling victim to the deceitful acts of their partners. Here we discuss the issue of bigamy, including the example of a Wirral nurse who fought and won her case against her bigamist husband.

What amounts to a valid marriage?

In order to be considered a valid marriage, both parties must:

  • Be at least 16 years old. If they are under 18, they will need consent from their parents or guardians.
  • Freely and fully consent to the marriage. Any pressure or coercion on either party to get married invalidates the marriage.
  • Have the mental capacity to understand the nature of the marriage contract and the implications of getting married.
  • Not be closely related to each other. For example, they cannot be siblings, parent and child, or grandparent and grandchild.
  • The parties must not be married to anyone else at the time of the marriage.
  • Must be conducted by an authorised person, such as a registrar, and in accordance with the relevant laws and regulations.
  • Be registered with the General Register Office within 42 days of the marriage.

A marriage may be considered invalid if it is void or voidable. The difference between the two is that whilst a void marriage was never valid, a voidable marriage can be.

A void marriage is one where the parties do not have the legal capacity to marry one another. Situations where one party is already married or in a civil partnership fall into this category.

How can I find out if my partner is married to someone else?

There are several ways to find out if your partner is married to someone else. You can search the marriage records which are held by the General Register Office (GRO) for marriages that took place in England and Wales from 1837 onwards. You can request a copy of a marriage certificate, which will show if your partner is married. Some people decide to hire a private investigator who can conduct a thorough investigation into your partner’s marital status. However, this can be an expensive option.

It is important to note that marriage records are confidential, and access to them is restricted to certain individuals, such as the parties to the marriage or their legal representatives.

Can my marriage be declared invalid?

You can obtain confirmation that the marriage is invalid by applying for a petition of nullity. This must be done within three years of the date of the marriage. A nullity application is dealt with in a similar way to a divorce petition.

What happens with our finances if the marriage is invalid?

If the nullity application is successful, then you will be entitled to seek the same financial remedies as you would have done if the marriage was valid. In the case below, the wife pursued her financial claims despite the marriage being declared invalid.

The case of the Wirral nurse and her bigamist husband

In 2018, the Wirral Globe reported the case of a nurse who had discovered that her husband of nine years was a bigamist. The nurse, who had two children with him, had no idea that he was already married when they tied the knot. When she found out, she immediately sought legal advice and started divorce proceedings.

The nurse’s bigamist husband fought the divorce, claiming that he had never been married before and that the marriage was valid. Finally, in 2020, a court hearing in Liverpool ruled in the nurse’s favour, stating that the marriage was invalid due to the fact that her husband was already married at the time. The nurse was granted a decree of nullity, which meant that the marriage was treated as if it had never existed.

A further example involves a man from Manchester. He was found to be a bigamist but he claimed he was unaware this was the case because he believed he was already divorced before remarrying. His confusion, he claimed, was caused by him thinking the decree nisi he had received meant his divorce was finalised –  though in fact he’d not received the decree absolute. Him being confused made no difference to the outcome of the case, he and his new partner were not legally married and he was required to pay a fine for bigamy.

What is the legal impact of bigamy?

The legal impact is significant. Bigamy is a criminal offence punishable by up to seven years in prison. It is also grounds for a nullity declaration, on the basis one party was already married.

It is important to remember that bigamy can be difficult to prove; if the bigamist has married overseas or under a different name, for example, it can be challenging to provide evidence of the previous marriage.

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