If you’re just tuning into one of TLC’s hit shows, you may be wondering how Sister Wives is legal. Longtime viewers will tell you that’s been a matter of contention for Kody, Meri, Janelle, Christine, and Robyn Brown — and their kids — since the reality series premiered.
The short answer is that Kody only has one legal wife, and he’s connected to the other wives in his plural marriage through a spiritual union. Meri, Kody’s first wife, was his legal wife until 2014, when she and Kody divorced so that he could legally marry Robyn and adopt the children Robyn had from a prior relationship.
But the legality of their plural marriage has caused the Browns many a headache over the years.
The Browns moved from Utah to Nevada amid a police investigation.
By the time Sister Wives premiered in 2010, police in Lehi, Utah, had been investigating the family for weeks, since bigamy was a felony in the state at the time. “The show certainly shed light on the situation,” Lehi police Lt. Darren Paul said at the time, per KSL.com.
Because of the investigation, the Brown family decided to move to Las Vegas, Nev. “I can’t have my family live in fear,” Kody said on the show. “Every day that we’re here, our family goes deeper and deeper into the fear of what can happen.”
The family suffered a legal defeat in 2016.
In 2013, two years after the Sister Wives stars sued Utah and the Utah County’s attorney’s office over the state’s bigamy law, a federal judge in Utah threw out the ban on “cohabitation” but kept the ban on bigamy “in the literal sense — the fraudulent or otherwise impermissible possession of two purportedly valid marriage licenses for the purpose of entering into more than one purportedly legal marriage,” as CNN reported at the time.
In 2016, however, a federal appeals court struck down that ruling, saying the Browns’ lawsuit had no standing because they faced no credible threat of prosecution, according to The Salt Lake Tribune. That ruling restored third-degree-felony penalties for the cohabitation part of Utah’s bigamy statute.
And the following year, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the Brown family’s appeal of that ruling. “Today is an injustice to not be heard by SCOTUS,” the Brown family tweeted at the time, per The Salt Lake Tribune. “We suspect there will be many people everywhere demanding to be heard for liberty.”
The family recently moved to Arizona, where they could face legal problems.
After several years in Vegas, the Browns moved to Flagstaff, Ariz., in 2018. But RadarOnline.com reported the following year that the Browns could have legal trouble in that state, too.
“Polygamy is unlawful in Arizona,” legal expert Monica Lindstrom told the site. "Arizona’s constitution specifically addresses polygamy and states in Article 20, Section 2: ‘Polygamous or plural marriages, or polygamous co-habitation, are forever prohibited within this state.’ Under Arizona’s constitution, living with one wife and a spiritual wife or two or three … could meet the definition of ‘polygamous co-habitation,’ which is prohibited.”
Attorney Dwane Cates, meanwhile, told the site that bigamy is a Class 5 felony in Arizona, adding, “[Kody] could get half a year to two-and-a-half years. He could get probation up to three years and $150,000 in fines.”
In the current 15th season of Sister Wives, the Browns are weighing a return to Utah. Tune into TLC on Sundays at 10 p.m. ET to see how their family evolves!