Tennessee Law on Bigamy & Divorce

By Beverly Bird

The law is firm that you can't get married if you're already married to someone else. If you do, it’s bigamy – unless you honestly believe that your first spouse divorced you or died. Bigamy occurs when a spouse knows he's still married and marries again. In Tennessee, it's grounds for divorce and also a criminal offense.

Bigamy as Fault Grounds

Although Tennessee recognizes no-fault divorce, the state also has some of the most extensive and colorful fault grounds of any jurisdiction. The state's domestic relations code cites that bigamy is grounds for divorce when either spouse knowingly marries "in violation of a previous marriage, still subsisting." However, Tennessee requires that you prove your grounds. You'll need documentation or testimony to establish that your spouse was still married when he married you.

Effect on Property Distribution

Assuming you can prove bigamy, technically, this fact should not have any effect on how a Tennessee court divides property between you and your spouse. In reality, however, it might. Tennessee is an equitable distribution state, which means judges have the right to divide marital property in something other than a 50/50 split, if they think the situation warrants it. Tennessee law permits judges to consider several statutory factors when distributing property between spouses, and one of these factors is ambiguous. It states that judges may consider "such other factors" that might contribute to a fair division of property. A bigamous spouse might find himself on the short end of property distribution if the judge believes his marital wrongdoing should affect the division.

Effect on Alimony

Tennessee's law is more clear cut regarding alimony. The state revised its legislative code in 2003 to urge judges to make sure that both spouses share a comparable lifestyle post-divorce. If one spouse greatly out-earns the other, the court is likely to order alimony, although several other factors may also be considered. One of these other factors is which spouse caused the breakup of the marriage. In other words, Tennessee law allows judges to award or deny alimony based on fault grounds or marital misconduct, such as bigamy.

Effect on Custody

Like all states, Tennessee bases custody decisions on the best interests of the child. Individual states set their own best interests standards, and some list the moral fitness of each parent, but Tennessee does not. However, bigamy is a criminal offense in Tennessee, so it might be very difficult for a judge not to give it some weight when deciding which parent should have custody.