Polygamy – The Hidden Face of Marriage in Michigan (Part 3)

Wedding dresses
Plural marriages aren’t legal, so divorce can only be an option if your wedding was legal to begin with.

Welcome back and thanks for joining us as we dissect this interesting and somewhat controversial subject. Polygamy is about as far from current mainstream America as throat singing and eating Hakarl (Google it – you’ll be amazed.) But despite it’s rarity, and illegality, polygamy still exists in America. If you’re only joining us now, we recommend you take a moment to catch up. Otherwize, let’s pick up where we left off.

While polygamy itself is rare, even less common is divorce among polygamists. This is likely due in part to the fact that many plural marriage practitioners here in the US today are fundamentalist Mormons. And fundamentalist Mormonism, much like fundamentalist Christianity and fundamentalist Islam, frowns on divorce. Oh, and in case you aren’t certain, that’s a very big frown. But despite that, it does sometimes happen.

Admittedly, information for plural marriage divorce rates is rather sketchy at best. Especially here in Michigan. This is  predominantly because so much of this particular subculture is kept secret from the public eye. However, from a legal standpoint, this is how it would work:

A polygamous husband is usually legally married to his first wife. This means that this marriage is recognized by the court. Should they want to part ways, they would need to get legally divorced. This would mean asset division and custody arrangements and everything else that comes with standardised divorce.

Every other wife “married” into that polygamous family after that first wife is NOT legally married in the eyes of Michigan law. (Bigamy is illegal in Michigan, which means that a person cannot get legally married to someone when they are already married to another person.) As a result, there would be no need for a legal divorce if any of the subsequent ‘marriages’ failed. A Michigan judge faced with this situation would likely treat the separating couple as unmarried cohabitants rather than as divorcing spouses.

The flip side of that arrangement is that the other wives would also have no legal rights.

They cannot ask the judge for an equitable division of assets, or make any claims to spousal support. The very best they’re likely to get is child support. This can be very problematic for these women, as many of them have lived in very insulated religious communities that didn’t encourage mothers in the workplace. As a result, very few of them have marketable skills to support themselves and their children after a plural marriage separation.

There are some states have chosen in recent years to recognize what is known as “palimony.”  This is essentially a court-ordered financial settlement between two people who were never married but who have separated after living together for a significant period of time. Michigan, however, is not one of those states.

Plural marriage families living in Michigan who are seeking to part ways would have no legal legs to stand on when it comes to equitable division of assets or any other rights and benefits usually conferred by marriage. The only way they could protect themselves would be to potentially plan for this eventually with a legally binding contract.

Michigan courts will recognize a contract made between two parties if the agreement meets legal contractual requirements. The agreement can be either oral or written, but there must be proof of it’s existence. Again, this can be difficult in fundamentalist religious plural marriage situations where divorce is neither expected or planned for.

Join us next time as we wrap up this segment on polygamy here in Michigan and around the U.S. Until then, if you and your (legal) spouse are considering divorce and would like your questions answered, or some help in preparing to end your marriage, call The Kronzek Firm at 866 766 5245. Our skilled family law attorneys are available to help you plan and prepare for your future.