Written by Indy G. Colbath, Esq.
In Henrico County, Virginia, a man was arrested for two separate counts of bigamy for marrying two different women before finalizing his divorce from his first wife. According to the article, Frank Ernest Blake, Jr. was simply unaware the divorce from his first wife had never been finalized. He states, "I got papers in the mail saying that we were divorced, but evidently you get two sets of papers. I signed my name and everything on it." While Mr. Blake's admitted ignorance of the legal divorce process might mitigate the circumstances of the first count of bigamy, his explanation for his second is less sympathetic. He and his dutiful third wife, Jessica, stated they didn't believe his second marriage was "real," since it was only two weeks in duration before he and his second wife separated.
Mr. Blake faces anywhere from two to ten years in prison for these separate counts of bigamy, which is a felony in Virginia. This result may seem unnecessarily harsh, since Mr. Blake appears to be ignorant of the legal consequences of his actions. Bigamy is an act taken extremely seriously in all US jurisdictions, including California.
The California Penal Code defines the crime of bigamy as "Every person, having a husband or wife living, who marries any other person, [except in the case specified in Section 282] is guilty of bigamy." Cal. Penal Code Section 281. (The "exceptions" defined in Section 282 describes circumstances in which the person's spouse has been absent for five successive years with no indication as to whether or not they're alive, like in the plot of the 1960's film "Move Over Darling." The other exception is when the person is able to get a court order declaring the prior marriage null, or an annulment.) A person found guilty of bigamy in California is subject to a fine of up to $10,000 or up to a year in jail.
What is notable about this Penal Code Section is that it does not require the person committing bigamy to actually know that he or she is still legally married. In other words, ignorance is no excuse for the determination of guilt in these types of cases. What else is notable about this crime is the name of the chapter of the Penal Code Section in which it is found: "Chapter 5, Bigamy, Incest and the Crime Against Nature." It is clear from including these Sections together and entitling the Chapter as such that the State Legislature had very little sympathy for the "ignorant bigamist" when drafting these laws. Public policy favors protecting the rights of married persons who genuinely believe that they are entitled to the rights and protections afforded to them, including marital (or community property,) spousal support, and the right to receive certain benefits as a spouse under the law, including Social Security.
The next logical question that may follow is what happens to poor Jessica Blake? While the article does not state whether or not she will be facing any of her own criminal charges, she appears to have known about the second two-week marriage. In California, Penal Code Section 284 creates a punishment for the person who "knowingly and willfully marries the husband or wife of another" of a fine no less than $5,000 or by imprisonment. In other words, the non-married participant in the bigamous union needs to be aware of the previous marriage in order to have committed the crime of bigamy. This distinction makes sense, because the "innocent" spouse should not be punished for the fraud committed by the bigamous spouse.
While it may be easier to empathize with poor Mr. Blake, the policy of the states remains clear: marriage is a union supported by the law, and procedures to end the marriage must adhere to the law before another marriage may be entered into. So even if a person does not want to participate meaningfully in their divorce proceeding, they cannot assume their divorce is granted upon receipt of "papers" in the mail. Until the final divorce decree is signed by a judge that establishes the date the marital status ends, the marriage is still in effect. Unfortunately, these court papers are oftentimes confusing and unclear to someone lacking previous experience with them.
So what happens if you don't know whether or not your divorce has been finalized and you're planning to remarry? The best way to protect yourself against this harsh type of result is to consult a family law attorney. The practitioners at Family Law Group, LLP boast over 35 years in combined experience, and are well-versed in advising their clients during all stages, including pre-marriage, pre-separation, and post-judgment. The attorneys at Family Law Group, LLP can offer an explanation of all remedies available under the law, while explaining the likelihood of success and the costs and benefits of pursuit of each one. We are here to help, contact us today, before your wedding day.