I think that every attorney has that one case early in their career that makes them scratch their head and wonder just how a particular client’s predicament came to be. For me, I was fresh out of law school and within my first month of practice was presented with a convoluted family law case in which my client, who we’ll call Mr. Big, lived abroad, his current wife was believed to be living in Tennessee, and the couple hadn’t seen or spoken to one another in over five years.
Notwithstanding the obvious international complications of the case, my client was actually seeking an annulment of the marriage to his second wife in Tennessee because he had knowingly failed to properly divorce his first wife in a different state, so that he could legally marry his third soon-to-be wife in another country. Oy! This case, though strange as it was, forced me to learn about an area of law that has implications in both the domestic and criminal arenas.
First, you cannot get married to someone if you are already married to someone else. The legal term for this action is called bigamy, which occurs when one spouse is aware that he or she is married, and nonetheless, decides to marry again. There are some minor exceptions to being married to two people at the same time; for instance, if a person has a good faith belief that he or she and the first spouse had been divorced or that the first spouse died when they got remarried, then these actions may not constitute bigamy. Otherwise, bigamy can be considered as grounds for divorce or annulment, and even a criminal offense.
In Tennessee, bigamy is a Class A misdemeanor and, and is punishable by a term of imprisonment and/or a fine not to exceed five thousand dollars ($5,000). With respect to an annulment based on a bigamous spouse, a petition is filed with the court which seeks to void or set aside the marriage. If the marriage is annulled, it is void ab initio, which means from the beginning, and it is as if the marriage never occurred. Annulments may be best suited for relatively short-term marriages, or for marriages without children or substantial assets.
Regarding divorce, even though Tennessee courts will consider irreconcilable differences as a basis for a “no-fault” divorce, Tenn. Code Ann. § 36-4-101(2) still recognizes bigamy as grounds for a divorce. Tenn. Code Ann. § 36-4-101(2) states that a cause for divorce from the bonds of matrimony includes the situation where, “Either party has knowingly entered into a second marriage, in violation of a previous marriage, still subsisting.” Therefore, if the spouse seeking to prove bigamy as a grounds for divorce can establish that the spouse was still married when the subsequent marriage occurred, then the court may grant the divorce based on these grounds.
A finding of bigamy does not generally affect property division in Tennessee because judges must make an equitable distribution of the parties’ assets; however, the court may consider bigamy as marital fault, among other factors, in deciding whether or not to award alimony. Thus, if the court finds that bigamy does constitute grounds for divorce, it may also decide that this conduct warrants an award of alimony to the other spouse.