This Commons Library briefing paper deals with when polygamous marriages might be legally recognised; immigration issues; social security benefits and pension entitlement.Jump to full report >>
Polygamy is the practice of having more than one wife at the same time.
In order to be recognised as legally valid, all marriages which take place in the United Kingdom must be monogamous and must be carried out in accordance with the requirements of the relevant legislation. For a polygamous marriage to be considered valid in the UK, the parties must be domiciled in a country where polygamous marriage is permitted and must have entered into the marriage in a country which permits polygamy.
There is some anecdotal evidence of people entering into polygamous marriage in the UK through religious ceremonies that are not registered by the state and are not recognised under UK law. Calls have been made for all marriages taking place in the UK to be registered.
No formal assessment is made of the number of polygamous households.
It has been the policy of successive governments to prevent the formation of polygamous households in the UK. A UK resident cannot sponsor a non-EEA national for permission to enter or remain in the UK as their spouse if another person has already been granted such permission, and the marriage has not been dissolved. However, it is possible for all parties to a polygamous marriage to be legally present in the UK. For example, a second spouse may qualify for entry to the UK in a different immigration category, in their own right.
At present, some benefits can be paid, in certain cases, in respect of more than one spouse, but the allowances that may be paid in respect of additional spouses are lower than those which generally apply to single claimants. Universal Credit (UC) is to replace all existing means-tested benefits and tax credits for families of working age but is not expected to be fully introduced until 2023. The 2010 Government decided that the UC rules will not recognise additional partners in polygamous relationships. This could potentially result in some polygamous households receiving more under UC than under the current benefit and tax credit system.
A wife in a polygamous marriage does not generally have the right to a state pension on the basis of her spouse’s contributions.
Commons Briefing papers SN05051
Authors: Catherine Fairbairn; Steven Kennedy; Djuna Thurley; Hannah Wilkins