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New Zealand

General Summary

New Zealand has relatively liberal marriage laws, due in part to successful homosexual lobbying over many years. Although we obviously disagree with homosexuality, the result is a legal system that actually caters very well for polygamy also. Although bigamy is a crime, de-facto polygamy is entirely legal, with de-facto relationships having essentially identical rights to registered marriages. Legislation regarding division of property in the event of a breakup specifically allows for polygamous situations in a very fair and logical manner. Immigration law also appears to have loopholes that allow for immigration of spouses in polygamy, though whether applications would be successful is unclear. Polygamous marriages that were entered into legally overseas are given some legal recognition.

As a general rule, particularly for anyone considering that polygyny may be in their family's future, following the liberalization of marriage laws in recent years it would be wise to refrain from registering any marriage with the state, but simply live together, in an unregistered de-facto relationship instead (from a legal sense, not a biblical one). There are essentially no legal downsides to this as de-facto relationships and registered marriages have essentially identical rights. State marriages are easy to enter but difficult to dissolve, so only being de-facto gives access to both options should either be found more beneficial in future. But a man with a legally married wife may still legally take additional de-facto wives.

From this point in this article, although all persons are considered "husband" or "wife" biblically and by this ministry, the terms "marriage" and "wife" are used in their legal sense only for a woman with a legal marriage license, and "partner" is used for a woman without.

State Marriage

A relationship can be registered with the state as a "marriage" or a "civil union". The legal implications of both are essentially identical. Homosexual "marriage" is also legal. (Marriage Act 1955)

The indigenous New Zealand Maori practiced polygamy. Although polygamy was prohibited under British law from 1840, Maori marriage customs were recognized until 1888. But since that date bigamy has been a crime.

Bigamy is defined as multiple registered "marriages" or "civil unions", or one of each. If a person immigrates to New Zealand from a country where plural marriage is legal, and is already in a plural marriage, their marriages are recognized legally for some purposes (Family Proceedings Act 1980, section 2). However if a New Zealand citizen or permanent resident marries an additional wife in a foreign country, this is considered bigamy. (Crimes Act 1961, section 205).

There are no laws against "adultery", so a man with one legal wife may also take a de-facto partner without breaking the law.

De-facto Marriage

Once a couple have lived together for three years, their legal status is essentially identical to if they had a legal marriage.

This is very important to be aware of, because it means that after three years a de-facto partner may be entitled to a substantial portion of the family's assets. However in a de-facto relationship there may be no documented proof of when a relationship began, or even if it existed. So even a flatmate, after three years, can in theory claim to have been in a relationship and claim entitlement to part of the family's assets.

Divorce

NZ has a "no-fault" divorce system, which means that no fault of either party (even adultery) is justification for divorce. The only legal justification for divorce is "irreconcilable differences", and the only evidence allowable for this is a 2-year separation (Family Proceedings Act 1980, section 39). This means that should a legally married couple wish to divorce on paper to no longer have their marriage licensed, they may be unable to do so unless they are willing to actually separate.

In the event of a relationship breakup (either marriage or de-facto), the law specifically caters for "multiple relationships with competing claims" - ie polygamy.

  • All relationships are between two people, but someone may have multiple relationships.
  • There is no priority given to marriage over a de-facto relationship, each has equal claim.
  • If someone has multiple simultaneous relationships regardless of marital status, and property claims are made, the claims are assessed on each relationship "in accordance with the contribution of each ... relationship to the acquisition of the property".

So should one wife/partner leave, she will not necessarily be entitled to 50% of the family's assets. Rather, her entitlement will be worked out considering the contribution she made to those assets, and the competing claims of any other wives/partners that may exist.

Note that a de-facto relationship must generally exist for three years to have these rights, or there must be a child from that relationship (similar restrictions apply even within marriage). This means that a de-facto partner will not be immediately entitled to a share of the family assets. Although arguably unfair initially, this does provide some security since the family isn't risking losing a large quantity of assets to a woman who joins the family briefly then runs away.

Relevant law: Property (Relationships) Act 1976, particularly sections 2C-2E (definition of de-facto relationship); 14-14A (exclusions for short-term relationships), 52A-52B (division of property with multiple relationships).

Ages

Legal marriage age: 16 with parental consent, 18 without. However "no marriage shall be void" for this reason alone, so younger marriages contracted overseas or in error may be considered legal. (Marriage Act 1955, sections 2,16-17)

Age of consent: 16, unless legally married. (Crimes Act 1961, section 134)

Immigration

Australian citizens may move to NZ to work and live, automatically being treated as residents. Citizens of all other countries are subject to immigration restrictions. There are several routes to immigration, e.g. employment, but most readers are likely to be interested in immigration as a spouse or partner of a NZ resident.

A New Zealand citizen may sponsor someone to immigrate as a "partner". The limitations are that you may only sponsor one person in a five-year period, or two people in a lifetime.

  • Initially an up to 2-year visitor's or work visa may be obtained to join a partner. To obtain this you must be "living together in a genuine and stable relationship".
  • To gain residence and stay permanently, you must have been living together for 12 months or more. A marriage license does not change this requirement, but can be used as part of the evidence that a relationship exists.

This is a practical complication, and may mean that a couple may need to begin living together with one spouse only on a visitor's visa, in the hope that in future residency would be obtained but with no guarantee.

It has often been suggested that a married couple could divorce on paper to allow the husband to legally marry a second to allow her to immigrate. For New Zealand, this approach is unrealistic - the divorce may be impractical and the second marriage may not assist immigration.

Interestingly the fact that marriage licenses have little effect could mean that having a marriage license with someone else is also irrelevant - in theory a married man should still be able to sponsor a second wife to immigrate as his "partner". Whether this would be successful in practice is more questionable however as the existing marriage license may be considered evidence that the second relationship is not sincere in order to deny the application. The fact that homosexual relationships are legally recognized also gives additional options for which family member is named as the sponsoring partner.

References

Disclaimer by Author

I am not a lawyer and none of this constitutes legal advice. I have only considered the actual wording of government legislation, not case law on how that legislation is actually applied in practice. Anyone actually considering a plural marriage in New Zealand should seek independent legal advice—this brief summary is simply designed to help you begin that conversation. Immigration is also complex and should be discussed with a professional immigration advisor.

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