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Bigamy Law, Sentence, & Defense
(PC 281)

The criminal law on bigamy can be found at California penal code section 281 and 284 (PC 284 is the crime of marry spouse of another person). 


Bigamy Criminal Law


California law forbids a person from marrying the spouse of another person when he or she knows that the spouse of another person is already married. The same law forbids a spouse from marrying another person while the spouse is still knowingly married to his or her own spouse (PC 281 Abbreviated).

Note: Both the spouse, and the person marrying the spouse of another, can be guilty of bigamy crimes. Sometimes, the district attorney will charge the crime of marry the spouse of another (PC 284), as opposed to the crime of bigamy (PC 281) if the defendant was single when he or she knowingly married a person who was already married. There is little difference between the two crimes and the crime of bigamy may be charged in either situation. 

To prove bigamy, the district attorney must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that:


  • The defendant had knowledge that a person he or she married was already married, or

  • That a person who is married knew he or she was married when he or she married another person. 

Sentence for Bigamy (PC 281)

Bigamy may be charged as a misdemeanor or as a felony in California. Whether or not the district attorney files felony bigamy charges as opposed to misdemeanor bigamy charges is decided on a case by case basis, but the most important factors include the level of deceit involved in the crime and the criminal history of the defendant.

If found guilty of felony bigamy the defendant could face up to three years in prison. If found guilty of misdemeanor bigamy the defendant could face up to one year in county jail.


Probation Sentence: A probation sentence is a period of supervision in lieu of jail or prison. Probation sentences carry probation terms that must be followed in order to avoid an actual jail or prison sentence. Probation sentences are allowed in both felony and misdemeanor PC 281 cases. Some probation sentences include a short jail sentence, but jail sentences associated with probation are usually served alternatively on work release or electronic monitoring.

PC 1170(h): If probation is not granted in a felony bigamy case, then the defendant must serve his or her time in a California state prison (as opposed to a local county jail). In addition, the prison sentence may not be split or suspended.

CIMT: Bigamy is not considered a crime involving moral turpitude.

Three Strikes Law: PC 281 is neither a serious, nor a violent offense under California law and it is not a strike offense under California's Three Strikes Law.

In addition to a possible jail or prison sentence, if found guilty of bigamy, the defendant could face any of the following punishments: loss or suspension of a professional license (i.e. doctors, dentists, lawyers, nurses, teachers, therapists, etc.), deportation or denial or reentry into the United States (for non U.S. citizens), penalty fines and fees, restraining orders, civil lawsuits, restitution orders, loss of firearm rights (for felony bigamy ), enhanced penalties for future convictions, civil lawsuits in family law, and more.

Defense to PC 281 Crimes

The most common defense to bigamy charges is probably insufficient evidence to prove that the defendant knew he or she was married or that the person the defendant married was already married. Commonly, people attempt to procure a divorce but never finalize the legal divorce paperwork for one reason or another. Thereafter, the same person marries again without realizing that the divorce from their first marriage was never finalized (due to a lack of formality). In this typical scenario the defendant may have a good faith belief (and defense) that his or her prior divorce had been finalized before he or she married another person.


Other common defenses to PC 281 include: mistake of fact, duress, insanity, coerced confessions, privilege against testimony (applies only to the legal marriage), and more.

If you or a loved one has been charged with the crime of bigamy, or PC 281, contact our criminal defense attorneys without delay for a free consultation. Our criminal lawyers are experienced and successful in both criminal law and family law. Our criminal defense and family law attorneys are available seven days a week to assist you. Call today!


Quick Reference​

Crime: Bigamy

Code: PC 281​

Wobbler:: Yes. PC 281 is a wobbler crime. This means that PC 281 may be charged as a felony or as a misdemeanor.


Incarceration:Felony PC 281​ jail sentence range: 16 months, 2 or 3 years (if probation not granted). Misdemeanor jail sentence up to 1 year.

Probation: Probation is allowed in PC 281​ cases (assuming other crimes or enhancements that bar a probation sentence are not present). Whether or not a probation sentence is offered by the District Attorney, or granted by the court, depends on several factors, including the defendant's criminal history and the facts of the case.​

PC 1170(h)): No. PC 281​ is not subject to PC 1170(h) sentencing. This means that any incarceration ordered after a conviction, that is not part of a probation sentence, must be served in state prison (as opposed to a county jail), and the prison sentence may not be split or suspended.

Strike: PC 281​ is not a strike offense listed in California's Three Strikes law.

Credits: 50% good conduct credits available.

CIMT: PC 281​ is not a crime involving moral turpitude.


Firearms: Felony PC 281​ convictions prohibit a defendant from owning or possessing a firearm.

Bail: $25,000 (Felony); $5,000 (Misdemeanor) (San Bernardino)

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