Can you get married to the same person twice (without getting divorced)
April 30, 2023 7:15 AM   Subscribe

This is a hypothetical question--I am not going to do this. But it came up for reasons I will explain, and it did make me curious! Particularly curious in the context of an american whose (first) marriage license is not from america

so I guess one question is: you get married in america. then you go to get married again. what happens?

now the more complex question. let's say you are, well, me. you're an american married to a chinese national and you have a chinese marriage license. everything I've seen (for example, via american embassy and consulate pages) indicates that this chinese marriage license is my marriage license--full stop. america will not provide any "proof" that I am married etc (even if japan wants it...but I digress!).

but what would happen in practice if me and my wife were to go to america and get married? and then get an american marriage license etc. I feel like this has to be illegal...but what law is being broken? is it simply part of the legal documents you sign when you get married in the US that you attest to not currently being married? and then the second question is in practice, if you did this (which I mean, I think it would be extremely easy to do if one wanted to break the law in a silly but serious way!), we were trying to think of how you would get caught. it's not like the US and china are exchanging information about marriages between their citizens. when would it matter? my guess is that it would matter if there were contentious legal proceedings...say, a nasty divorce, or inheritance issues. but I'm curious if there'd be anything before that

again: I'm not going to do this!! but it came up when I was talking about how at times japan wants proof that doesn't exist, and someone suggested it and I was like...huh, what laws is that breaking...
posted by wooh to Law & Government (19 answers total)
Marriage is fundamentally a contract recognized by the state. Without contradictions in the contracts, I don't think anything odd or exciting would happen.
posted by mhoye at 7:28 AM on April 30

I think you would have voided the second marriage due to lying on the form and it would be fraud. Maybe a federal fraud. I think also you could get into trouble if somehow you used this license or marriage date in a way that voided an important insurance policy or something like that. I tend to think that in the future everything documented about us will end up being locatable data so if you've provided the Chinese date and eventually the American date conflicted I can see there could be some unknowable now future problem.
posted by pairofshades at 7:28 AM on April 30 [1 favorite]

so I guess one question is: you get married in america. then you go to get married again. what happens?

In our case, we told the celebrant we were already married and wanted a new ceremony. Everything about the ceremony looked the same, we just skipped the marriage license and certificate part that happens behind the scenes.
posted by solotoro at 7:52 AM on April 30 [2 favorites]

I guess in my mind there’s several different angles to this question:

Can you get your second marriage recognized by the state? Generally not by the same state! Maybe you could get away with it with two different states/countries but you’re not supposed to

Can you get your second marriage to the same person recognized religiously? Generally not by the same religion, I think, though there’s a lot of different religions with a lot of different ideas.

Can you get your second marriage recognized socially? Well people renew their vows all the time but that’s not really what you’re talking about. You could totally live a double life and trick different people into think you are just getting married for the first time at different times. Weird hobby though

Can you mix and match? For sure! It’s super common for people to get legally married when it’s expedient and then do the ceremony and religious stuff when that’s more convenient.
posted by aubilenon at 8:13 AM on April 30

Response by poster: To clarify: I am talking about obtaining a marriage license. I should have made by clearer. I'm talking specifically about the legal part of marriage, not the ceremony etc. So having a marriage license from another country (China) then getting a marriage license in the US

I realize it is possible to have a ceremony without getting a marriage license. This has nothing to do with marriage ceremonies etc. It purely came up thinking about in what ways this was illegal, and how one would even get caught.
posted by wooh at 8:13 AM on April 30

In the US, you need a marriage license to get married, when you get a marriage certificate. To get the license, they ask if you're married, and lying on that is a crime. I'd get the Chinese marriage certificate, get a good translation and maybe have it notarized A translator can attest that it's a true translation, a notary verifies facts and notarizes documents about the facts. Find an expert in Japan, ask them to write a document, add that to your stack of papers.
posted by theora55 at 8:14 AM on April 30 [2 favorites]

A marriage license will generally require you to list any previous marriages and provide proof (of varying levels) of their dissolution. So if someone tried to do this, they couldn’t do it without lying. Lying on such a form is generally going to be a crime of some sort.

Now, if someone lied and failed to list their marriage to Chris, the state might not know about it, and may allow that someone to marry Joe, but the someone would be committing bigamy, which is a felony in many states. I don’t think your scenario would qualify as bigamy in any state, since there’s no “second spouse”. But I dunno.
posted by skewed at 8:24 AM on April 30 [1 favorite]

As everybody is saying, the making of false statements to obtain a marriage license is illegal and probably some kind of minor felony, specifics depending on jurisdiction (marriage being a state matter, rather than federal). As far as I know nobody anywhere in the US is going out and creating a cross checked list of who is married and to whom, so this is unlikely to be the issue by itself until and unless it comes to light for some other reason. Just as a guess, most people who engage in getting a second, fraudulent license are doing it as part of some other fraud — bigamy is the obvious thing that comes to mind — and that is where the real legal jeopardy lies.

The second marriage is invalid, so anything based on it will also be invalid. I seem to remember a case a decade or two ago where a couple married twice and carelessly used their second, US marriage as the one for immigration purposes. They weren’t really trying to do anything particularly wrong as I recall and weren’t even trying to hide it so the fraud was minor, but sufficient to have INS/USCIS deny naturalisation and deport the non-US spouse.

This is your problem, rather than the minuscule chance of someone finding out about and prosecuting the fraudulent second marriage. Any time you presented your American license it would be for some official purpose that would then be invalid and you would be probably be committing some new crime into the bargain.

In short, your problem lies not in the second marriage, but in your desire to use the second marriage to make your life easier — it would do exactly the opposite!
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 9:02 AM on April 30 [1 favorite]

Not only that you would be lying in the marriage license that you aren’t currently married (and thus commit a felony or something illegal), you would then start multiplying your lies in the future every time you are filling out a form about when you were married. If there are inconsistencies in your docs that you have previously filed with the government vs future ones, that is likely how you would “get caught” and face some consequences.
posted by thewildgreen at 10:05 AM on April 30

Your US license will indicate that the people on the license are already married to each other, but otherwise the US jurisdiction will issue you the license and you can get legally married in the US and then have a record from the registrar marriages in that US jurisdiction indicating you were married on that date.

At least, that is what happened when I did it. I have not done it in all 50 US states, nor in every county in every state (not by a long shot) but AFAIK being already married to each other is not an impediment to applying for a new marriage license.

Now, everyone is correct in that if you do not indicate in your application that you are already married to each other you could cause a problem, but if you don't lie, you're fine.
posted by crush at 10:19 AM on April 30 [1 favorite]

Marriage in the US is governed by state law. I believe some states allow people who are already married to marry again, as long as they are marrying the same is good for tourism. Some states do not allow this. I’m not able to look up sources on this at the moment, but will try to do so later.
posted by Winnie the Proust at 10:20 AM on April 30

is it simply part of the legal documents you sign when you get married in the US that you attest to not currently being married?


and then the second question is in practice, if you did this [...], we were trying to think of how you would get caught.

Based on recent experiences nobody is looking for this kind of thing unless/until it becomes important. If your wife tries to enter the U.S. Immigration process it may very well come out and she will be permanently rejected. If you list her as a spouse for Social Security they won't check right now but if she ever files a benefit claim it will likely be rejected. Needless to say if you ever want a U.S. governmental clearance you'll probably be out of luck.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 10:55 AM on April 30

I can't think of any reason anyone would want to do this, unless for some reason they were living in a place that didn't recognize the marriage they contracted somewhere else? I'm not personally familiar with any political entity that doesn't recognize marriages from other political entities, but then again I'm no law-talking guy.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:35 AM on April 30 [1 favorite]

Why would an American marriage license be any more legitimate than a Chinese marriage license as proof of marriage to Japanese authorities?

If Japanese requirements are anything like American requirements, you would need a certified translation into Japanese of your marriage license, and it shouldn’t matter what country you were married in or what language the license/proof of marriage is in, as long as it conforms to the Japanese requirements.

I don’t know if this is universal in all the states, but when I was married the *license* (permission to marry) was separate from the *certificate* (proof of marriage). Someone still needed to perform a legal marriage (in my case it was a Justice of the Peace). In this scenario, if you were to get a license, you’d still need to get a certificate, which basically indicates the date of the legal marriage contract, and that would be different from your existing Chinese marriage.
posted by ellenaim at 11:59 AM on April 30 [1 favorite]

When gay marriage was legalized state-by-state, friends of ours married several times in the jurisdictions where they lived (they moved around a lot) as it was legal, with one last time once it was legal throughout the US. They did not lie about being previously married, and had no problems as far as I know.
posted by shadygrove at 1:20 PM on April 30 [2 favorites]

The Underpants Monster, any same-sex marriage performed in (e.g. New Zealand) is not recognized as a marriage in (e.g. Fiji), and I understand second (and third, and fourth) contemporaneous marriages of multiple female partners to the same male partner, which may be recognized as legal marriages in some Muslim-majority countries, are not recognized as legal marriages in New Zealand, 'cause here we call that bigamy.
posted by ngaiotonga at 2:16 PM on April 30

You can't be the first person to ever be in Japan with a Chinese marriage. Getting that documentation and getting Japan to recognize it might be a hassle, but a lot lower-risk.

I mean, I get this is hypothetical, but as other people have said, you'd be swearing to things that aren't true (that you're not already married) in official documents. Then you'd be using those official documents, obtained by fraud, as evidence for some other official purpose (I'm assuming, or else why get it at all). Which is to say getting re-married in the US and then presenting the US certificate in Japan might be committing (technical, but still) fraud in two countries.

I think in reality nobody would ever check and you'd probably never get caught for the rest of both of your lives. But if you did it would be at the worst possible moment, when you need something for your spouse, and then can't get it. Or something innocuous like getting sued for something else, and the opponent digs it up to prove you have a habit of being a fraudster, and it torpedoes this other case for millions of dollars or something. I wouldn't invite chaos theory into my life like that.
posted by ctmf at 4:50 PM on April 30 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: writing a good question is tricky...I really didn't mean this in the *wink wink* "we won't do this way." it just came up and I was curious about understanding the law and repercussions

> Why would an American marriage license be any more legitimate than a Chinese marriage license as proof of marriage to Japanese authorities?

because they see I'm an american and want american documents. whether it becomes an issue varies and in almost every case where it is they can be convinced, but it's definitely something that comes up, to the point that the american embassy in japan has it explicitly called out:

The U.S. Government does not issue marriage certificates for marriages performed overseas. Your Japanese marriage document will be the only proof of your marriage. If anyone (i.e. Japanese Immigration) asks for your “marriage certificate issued by your own government,” there will be none.

many governments expect there to be more formal proofs of this or that that america simply does not provide. it's not insurmountable, but it can be annoying for sure
posted by wooh at 5:45 PM on April 30

Your question was clear. I don’t have much to add directly, but as an extension of your thought experiment I’m sure there are likely some states where if you are resident you could divorce and remarry on the same day (and people famously do the reverse). Whether that makes things simpler in any way is left as an exercise for the reader.
posted by meinvt at 6:48 PM on April 30 [1 favorite]

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