Under California law Penal Code 284 PC, it is illegal to knowingly marry or enter into a domestic partnership with someone who is already married to someone else.
This is not to be confused with bigamy, defined under Penal Code 281 PC, which is the crime of marrying multiple spouses. If you're convicted of marrying the husband or wife of another, you could be facing up to 3 years in prison under a felony conviction.
Simply put, PC 284 makes it a felony crime to marry or enter a registered domestic partnership with another person's spouse, meaning it's illegal to knowingly marry someone already married.
PC 284 says, “Anyone who knowingly and willfully marries the husband or wife of another, in any case in which such husband or wife would be punishable under the provisions of this chapter, is punishable by fine not less than five thousand dollars $5,000, or by imprisonment pursuant to subdivision (h) of Section 1170.”
Of note is that this statute prohibits certain marriages and applies to registered domestic partnerships; there are exceptions, and someone must act willfully and knowingly to be found guilty of violating this law.
A domestic partnership is a relationship between two people who live together and share a common life but are not married to each other. Let's review this state-level law in greater detail below.
Overview of Penal Code 284 PC
For many years, it has been the law in California that you cannot marry someone who is already married to someone else.
In 2016, this law was amended to include registered domestic partnerships, meaning it is also now illegal to enter into a domestic partnership with someone who already has a spouse.
It should be noted that PC 284 applies even if the person you marry:
- Is separated from their spouse;
- Has attempted unsuccessfully to divorce their spouse;
- Has permission from the other spouse to remarry, but they have not officially divorced; or
- Was originally married in another state or country.
As long as the original marriage is still legally in effect, it's a crime to marry a married person.
Marrying the Spouse of Another versus Bigamy
People often confuse the crime of PC 284 marrying the spouse of another with the crime of PC 281 bigamy. While they may sound similar, they are two different crimes that are closely related:
- You commit bigamy (PC 281) by marrying someone when you are already married.
- You are guilty of marrying the spouse of another (PC 284) when the other person is already married. In other words, you may be single before marrying them.
Thus, if you marry the spouse of another, you're violating PC 284, but the person you marry is committing bigamy (PC 281). If you're both previously married and you marry each other, you're both essentially committing both crimes.
Violating PC 281 bigamy laws is a wobbler offense that can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony.
If convicted of bigamy as a misdemeanor, you face a fine and imprisonment in the county jail for up to one year. If convicted of a felony, it's punishable by imprisonment in state prison for up to three years.
What Are the Exceptions to PC 284?
There are currently two situations that are considered valid exceptions to PC 284:
- Annulment: If the other person's marriage was lawfully annulled, dissolved, or declared void by a court with the authority to do so, you're not committing a crime by marrying that person.
- Absent or missing spouse: If the other person's spouse has been absent for five consecutive years, AND if the person does not know whether their absent spouse is still alive, it is not a crime if you marry that person.
What Are the Related Offenses?
A few crimes are related or similar to PC 284 and, in some cases, may even be charged in tandem with this crime. These include:
- Bigamy defined under Penal Code 281 PC: Marrying someone when you're already married.
- Incest defined under Penal Code 285 PC: Marrying or having sex with a close relative, such as a parent, grandparent, aunt or uncle, brother or sister.
What Are the Penalties for PC 284?
Marrying the husband or wife of another is a felony offense in California. If convicted, you could face 16 months, two years, or three years in county jail and a minimum fine of $5000.
Additionally, a conviction will result in a permanent criminal record that may make it difficult for you to find employment or housing.
If you're convicted under PC 284, the judge has the latitude to take the facts of the case into account and impose formal probation instead of jail time.
What Are the Defenses for PC 284?
If you are facing charges of marrying the husband or wife of another, there are a few defenses that your California criminal defense attorney may employ to combat the charges. These are discussed below.
Perhaps we can argue that you did not know the other person was married. To be convicted of PC 284, prosecutors must show you willfully married or entered a domestic partnership with someone already married. If you genuinely did not know that person was married, there is no crime.
Perhaps we can argue that your situation qualifies as an exception. If you can show that the other person's marriage was lawfully annulled or that their spouse has been absent for five consecutive years with no knowledge of whether they are alive, you can claim a valid exception, and the charges should be dropped.
Perhaps we can argue that you were falsely accused. It's not unusual for an ex-spouse or partner to level false accusations that you are illegally married, usually from a motivation of revenge or jealousy. Your attorney can fight these false accusations by presenting evidence to refute them.
If you have been accused of violating Penal Code 284 PC or a related crime, contact our law firm to review the case details and legal options. Perhaps negotiating with the prosecutor for reduced charges or a case dismissal is possible.
You can contact us by phone or fill out the contact form. Eisner Gorin LLP is located in Los Angeles, CA.