Sometimes when a writer is looking to stir things up, or prevent the inevitable progression of a relationship, or stop a wedding, we'll find out that oops, once upon a time our hero/ine had an Accidental Marriage, Arranged Marriage or Citizenship Marriage, possibly brought on by an Off the Wagon night. Which they then proceeded to forget about for years on end until their long-lost spouse comes looking for them wanting a divorce, or they want to marry their current SO. Occasionally they'll think the marriage was annulled or never really counted, or they'll foolishly trust their spouse to take care of doing away with the ill-advised nuptials. It can be a bit more forgivable if the returning spouse supposedly died.
For added drama to all parties involved, the writer can also make the unmentioned wife a Madwoman in the Attic.
This is somewhat uncommon in Real Life, but not unheard of - some people really can't be bothered with the paperwork necessary to get a proper annulment/divorce for a relationship that's long since over. However, the New Old Flame complication generally only happens in Real Life in cases of intentional bigamy. May or may not result in Accidental Adultery. Can happen with The Mistress.
See also "Not Really Married" Plot.
- Happened in the '80s to Supergirl, in a story just after she died in Crisis on Infinite Earths (Superman #415: Supergirl: Bride Of- -X?). An alien named Salkor showed up on Earth claiming to be her husband, which of course Superman didn't believe. Later in the story, he finds a video Supergirl made in his fortress where she relates being injured by a collision in space with a Kryptonite meteor. Salkor, the hero of his world, finds her and nurses her back to health. Since she has amnesia, she hangs around and falls in love with him. But eventually, her old memories return, in the process pushing aside her memories of the incidental marriage. She flies back to Earth and resumes her life. Her memories returned just in time for her to make the video before her death. A lot of fans forget this story because it was a time of way out stories as writers were cut loose to write any story they wanted before the reboot. Plus the marriage was a little bit gross by human standards.
- The Accidental Husband Starring Uma Thurman. In this case, the title is sort of misleading: Thurman plays a relationship talk show host who advises one of her listeners to break up with her boyfriend. When said boyfriend learns the host is about to get married, he gets his revenge by having a kid hack into a government database and list her as married to him. "Hilarity" Ensues.
- Bill and Jo in Twister. Bill and Jo had long split up, but never signed the divorce papers until Bill shows up with his new fiancee. It makes one wonder exactly how and when Bill broke the news to her. First date? Second date? The marriage proposal? "Honey, will you marry me?" "Yes!" "Great! Would you mind coming along on a road trip to visit my current wife so she and I can get divorced?" "What?!"
- Sweet Home Alabama has the main plot ride on one of these, as the main character not only never got divorced but even leads her new fiance to believe her first husband was her cousin. And it takes place in the deep south...
- There's also a mild Running Gag that Jake and Melanie keep forgetting that "marriage" has legal implications. Jake tries to get the sheriff to remove Melanie from his house, but the sheriff refuses, since they're still married and it's her house, too. Later, when Melanie goes to the bank, she finds she still has access to her and Jake's joint checking account, and cleans him out to essentially blackmail him into signing the divorce papers.
- Move Over Darling (Doris Day, James Garner, and Polly Bergen) is a 1963 remake of a 1940 Screwball Comedy My Favorite Wife (Irene Dunne, Cary Grant and Randolph Scott). The plot is: a wife was lost off a ship that sunk. Presumed dead after 7 years, the husband remarries. However, the first wife has been living on a deserted island with another man, is rescued, and comes home on the wedding day.
- In Libeled Lady (1936), Bill Chandler is confident that his marriage to Gladys Benton isn't legal because her Mexican divorce from her previous husband is invalid, so he has no qualms about marrying Connie Allenbury. Gladys then subverts the trope by telling Bill that she knew the Mexican divorce was invalid, so she went back and got a proper Divorce in Reno.
- Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre, though he never forgot, he just kept the fact concealed.
- In A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Sissy never bothers to properly divorce her first two husbands.
- Barbara in Harry Turtledove's World War series. Her husband Jens went missing during a scouting mission and was assumed KIA. By the time he caught up with her, she was already remarried and pregnant, driving him to a FaceHeel Turn.
- The first husband of Hatty Doran in the Sherlock Holmes story "The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor" was reported killed in an Apache raid on his mining camp. She only learns that he didn't die when she sees him at her second wedding.
- In Animorphs, Marco's dad remarries a few years after his first wife "died." Unknown to him, his wife was still alive—she was the host of Visser One, who Faked The Dead when it was time to leave the planet. Needless to say, this situation was quite awkward for Marco, who knew his mom was alive but couldn't tell anyone.
- In The Premature Burial by Edgar Allan Poe, Victorine La Fourcade, a wealthy French girl, was involved with a poor journalist named Julien Bossuet, whom her family did not approve of because of his socioeconomic status. She caved under family pressure and married a wealthy banker, who abused her until she fell ill and (apparently) died. It turns out she was not actually dead, just unconscious, and had been Buried Alive! Julien came to her grave not long after her "death" to take a lock of her hair and found out the truth. He took her home, nursed her back to health, and eloped to America with her. The couple returned to France some 20 years later, and the banker recognized Victorine and tried to legally claim her back. Because of his bad treatment of her and her current marriage to Julien, Victorine refused, and the court ruled in her favor, saying that because of the unusual circumstances and the time that had passed, her marriage to the banker guy was herewith dissolved.
- Henry Crawford in the Mr. and Mrs. Darcy Mysteries conveniently forgets that he married Meg, under the name John Garret. She turns up looking for him at Mansfield Inn - while he's still dealing with the fallout to his marriage to Anne de Bourgh.
- In Miss Lulu Bett, Ninian waits a week after his marriage to Lulu to tell her that he was married 15 years ago and his wife is, as far as he knows, still floating around out there somewhere. A mortified Lulu leaves him and goes home.
- About two-thirds of the way through the Dr. Thorndyke novel Mr. Pottermack's Oversight, Mr. Pottermack finally feels free to propose to the love of his life — at which point, she reveals that she's not free to accept because she already has a husband, whom she walked out on before she met Mr. Pottermack but to whom she is officially still married.
- In Tamar Cohen's The War of the Wives, both the first wife and the second wife had no idea that they were married to the same man for nearly twenty years because he managed to lie to both of them about his job so that the two were never in the same place at the same time. Both find out that he's a bigamist at his funeral and how they handle each other in the course of the novel.
- In the fifth book of the Sword of Truth series, Richard is campaigning against the Imperial Order alongside his wife, Kahlan, when a woman he rescued in the second book shows up, calling herself his wife, based on a prophecy Richard had fulfilled in rescuing her. Worse yet, because of her tribe's customs, she considers her newborn child born out of her being raped in captivity to be Richard's as well. While this causes no issues with Kahlan, it seriously harms Richard's public image in the campaign.
- Phoebe is very fond of this trope. She married a Not-So-Gay Ice Dancer and conveniently forgot to mention it to even her best friends, and it is implied that she also married an unknown (to the viewers) man in Las Vegas.
- Rachel trusts Ross to annul their drunken Vegas marriage - and he doesn't go through with it.
- Bones had a multi-episode subplot where Hodgins and Angela were getting married, but it turned out that Angela was already married, so they had to track down her husband so she could get a divorce. This was a problem because she didn't even remember who he was, or that she was even technically married since all she could remember was getting massively drunk and jumping over a broomstick with a guy.
- Of special note: Angela and the audience actually learned about this marriage much earlier, before she and Hodgins were even dating, when the FBI ran a background check on her so she could be clear to work on sensitive cases. Her reaction at that time is "Huh, that actually stuck?" Despite knowing about this (and knowing that the authorities are interested in her marital status), it doesn't occur to her again until her wedding to Hodgins gets interrupted.
- Sam on Burn Notice drifted apart from his wife and eventually lost contact with her altogether. He never bothered to file for divorce because he thought, as a womanizing spy, that he wouldn't live long enough to settle down. Several decades later, his girlfriend proposes...
- Castle: The plot of the season 6 finale. It is revealed that, while at university, Beckett married her then-boyfriend during a drunken weekend in Vegas. She thought they were divorced, but he had never signed the papers. She and Castle make a desperate drive upstate to locate him and get him to sign the papers. However, things get complicated when her ex is kidnapped.
- His best man was a goat since the whole wedding party was pretty drunk at the time. Shawn is pissed because he was supposed to be that goat!
- Mr. McQueen on Popular
- G.O.B. on Arrested Development, explained as the logical conclusion to a series of drunken dares with a woman (played by Will Arnett's actual wife Amy Poehler) he met at a bar. The sad thing: he could have gotten it annulled if he'd just admit that he never actually had sex with the woman.
- Mimi on The Drew Carey Show. She was married to Eddie Money for a week. She'd been divorced; the problem was that the church she wanted to be married in refused to do the ceremony unless she got an annulment.
- On the Angel episode "Bachelor Party", Doyle was married to some woman, which he neglected to tell Cordelia because they had separated due to Doyle's issues with his half-demon status. Said woman came looking for a divorce as she found a new husband. She called off her new engagement though because her demon fiancé's family would only approve of their marriage if he performed an obscure ritual that involved eating Doyle's brain. Presumably, the divorce stuck since she's never seen again.
- Edward and the mistake he and Kitty swore never to talk about in Dharma & Greg. He trusted her to file the paperwork, and she... forgot. The problem is never resolved, because it turns Kitty on that she's "the other woman", effectively un-probleming it.
- Karen Darling from Dirty Sexy Money.
- Frasier Crane was married prior to him appearing on Cheers, to fellow medical student Nanette Guzman. They were only married for a few months and then divorced. Years later, when Frasier was married to Lilith, Nanette reappeared as a children's entertainer called "Nanny Gee". Turns out Frasier never told Lilith about his first marriage, leading to a conflict between The Missus and the Ex.
Lilith: "Oh look, it's my first husband."
- Sarah 'Mac' Mackenzie on JAG especially horrible in that she is a lawyer and US Marine officer.
- 3rd Rock from the Sun has a fascinating twist on this. As just when Dick Solomon is about to get married The Big Giant Head decides to send a wife to him. Thus he didn't 'forget' he was married but was suddenly forced to ret-con a wife into his life, and yes, hilarity ensues.
- On Wings, Helen was about to marry Joe but she forgot to divorce Antonio who she married for citizenship reasons.
- On Scrubs Dr. Cox and Jordan find out that they never correctly filed their divorce papers, and so are still legally married. Note that they're living together, have a child together, and are in a long-term committed relationship. But finding out that they're married drives them both crazy for some reason. In the end, they decided that they have to get divorced to save their relationship (their relationship remains exactly the same, but they're not officially bound together anymore), and even have a public, celebratory divorce ceremony.
- Though not married, Craig did pull this in Degrassi when he was having an affair. Manny didn't want to be Craig's skank on the side, and he told her that he broke up with Ashley so that they can be together. The problem is he doesn't break up with her, and now is cheating on both girls with each other. Leading to both finding out and dumping him on the spot.
- On Shameless (US), Kevin proposes to Veronica while drunk. It takes a while for him to confess to her that he never divorced his first wife. According to him, she was a total psycho and he is actually in hiding from her. If he asks her for a divorce now, he fears she will kill him. Veronica is actually fine with this and they have a fake wedding just so they don't disappoint Veronica's mother and more importantly get wedding gifts.
- On My Name Is Earl, Joy tricks Earl into marrying her, by getting her friends to serve him "upside-down martinis", before driving off to Las Vegas with him. The next morning, Earl wakes up badly hungover and spots Joy's wedding ring.
Earl: "Oh, my God! You're married?!"Joy: "Yeah, sweetie. To you!"
- Subverted in the M*A*S*H episode, "Cease Fire". The war is believed to be almost over. A nurse Hawkeye was dating asks him about what their relationship will be post-war, and he claimed to be "suffering from terminal marriage", even though he wasn't really married. And he does it several times. Hawkeye Really Gets Around, and after the events of that episode it's odd that anyone on the nursing staff would even talk to him again.
- Subverted again in a later episode where Charles is on leave in Tokyo and gets drunk. Photos taken during the binge show him getting married. His "wife" soon comes to visit the camp where after he finally reveals he doesn't remember anything from the evening, she explains that while inebriated he was so insistent they get married that they staged a fake wedding to appease him. They then get drunk and stage a fake divorce.
- In Mad Love, due to a clerical error Kate turns out to be still married to her high school boyfriend she married on a dare.
- Rachel in British series Cold Feet. The series kicked off with her break-up with a super serious boyfriend of several years, but she immediately meets her new big love Adam. When Adam and Rachel are later moving together, he finds her marriage licence and thinks it's a just-for-fun fake thing. However, it's very real and she never got divorced, and she has no intention. She wants to live with Adam but doesn't want to be a divorced woman. Her friends call her on it, but when she goes to meet her estranged husband to deal with it, they sleep together and she gets pregnant. Rachel and Adam eventually patch things up and get back together, but they broke up over Rachel's cheating, even though Adam wanted to forgive her.
- Subverted in How I Met Your Mother. When Ted dates Robin, he finds out she has a secret. He desperately wants to find out what it is, and his friends bet on her being married because she hates marriage and commitment, and always talk about this friend who married way too young. Robin confirms it and Ted fusses over not being a boyfriend, but a "mistress". However, they later find out she lied. Her embarrassing secret is that she used to be a teen pop star in Canada.
- On an episode of The Big Bang Theory, we learn that Penny and Zack had engaged in matrimonial hijinks one drunken night in Vegas. She thought it didn't count or wasn't real, but...
- Played with in a two-parter on Batman (1966). Batman was being forced to marry Marcia, Queen Of Diamonds (long story). Before the wedding ceremony can be completed, Alfred arrived with Aunt Harriet and a fake marriage certificate saying that Harriet has been "Mrs. Batman" for the last seven years.
- In Reaper, Ben gets into a Citizenship Marriage with a British girl named Sara. Shortly after that, he meets a girl named Cassidy. After a few dates, she (with some humor) points out that he forgot to take off his wedding ring. He explains the whole thing... and she likes the idea of being a mistress. After the ruse is discovered, Sara goes on the lam, leaving Ben to go to jail for a few months. Cassidy is happy that Ben will be single after doing time... but then ends up dumping him while he's still in jail.
- In Elementary, Joan Watson starts dating a man while Sherlock is training her to be an investigator. Sherlock urges her to do a background check on the man in case he's already married, and under protest, she does, and he is. When she confronts her date about it, he explains that it was a Citizenship Marriage for strong humanitarian reasons... and now she has to explain why she does background checks on her dates.
- In Downton Abbey, Lady Edith finds herself dating Michael Gregson, a newspaper editor. Some digging on her part then reveals that Gregson is married, to a woman who now lives in an asylum and has no idea who he is. Under English law, he can't divorce her.
- Stargate SG-1: Pops up whenever Vala and Tomin encounter each other during season 10 and Stargate: The Ark of Truth. It's unlikely that Vala actually forgets being married to Tomin at any point, but she does seem pretty convinced that it no longer "counts", while Tomin is quick to remind everyone that they are, technically, still married.
- In One Big Happy, Luke discovers that Prudence had a husband in England who never signed the divorce papers. Lizzy, who brought the man over thinking he was Prudence's father, gets him to sign the papers, but the incident has Luke rethinking his own marriage, questioning Prudence's intentions.
- In the season 2 finale of Scorpion, Happy turns down Toby's proposal after a season-long relationship, saying only, "I can't. I'm married to someone else. I'm sorry," and then walks out of the room. The early episodes of season 3 had Toby trying to figure out who her mystery husband is. It turns out she married Walter because his visa was going to expire.
- Rizzoli & Isles: In "For Richer or Poorer", Jane is puzzled when a man discovered unconscious at a murder scene has a photo of himself and Maura at a Las Vegas wedding chapel. Maura reveals that he was her college boyfriend and they got married in Vegas, before deciding the whole thing was a mistake and getting it annulled the next day. However, it turns out the lawyer handling the annulment suffered a stroke before he could submit the papers, so Maura is still legally married. At the end of the episode, she and her 'husband' get divorced.
- Hot in Cleveland: Variant - at the end of season 2, Elka Ostrovsky's wedding to her boyfriend is interrupted when her supposedly deceased husband shows up. It's later revealed he was Faking the Dead because he was a fence for the mob, which gets him arrested soon after.
- A fairly common storyline on Soap Operas to bring the Conflict Ball into a couple's life.
- On Preacher, Tulip reveals that she got married while she and Jesse were broken up, and that's why she doesn't want to marry him. It becomes a moot point when the Saint of Killers kills her husband.
- A variant of this on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne asks Kimmy for a divorce and that's when she realized that the wedding performed when he held her captive was real.
- Agatha Raisin: In "Agatha Raisin and the Murderous Marriage", Agatha and James' wedding is interrupted by the unexpected arrival of Agatha's husband. In her defence, she has honestly believed him to be dead.
- Jimmy and Lucy on Raising Hope. It was revealed during the Inside Probe episode that the two got married before the latter was executed. It was also revealed that she didnt actually die... so the next episode revolves around the custody battle that ensued for the titular toddler involving plenty of Artistic License Law. Ultimately the Chances lose the custody battle and Jimmy is forced to go with Lucy to Tibet to stay with his daughter, leaving his current flame, Sabrina behind. "Fortunately" Lucy notices this and gets out of the van to stab her, only to be hit by a bus herself.
- Played for laughs on The Big Leap when Paula and Mike get engaged. He's already separated from his wife, but in the rush of everything he forgets that they haven't actually divorced until Paula pops the question. Fortunately, they know they can lean on Nick, the Executive Producer of the reality show they're on, to get it processed faster than normal in order to stage the wedding on the show.
- Ray Charles' "Mess Around", per the page quote.
- Arctic Monkeys "Do the Bad Thing":
Do the bad thing
Take off that wedding ring
It won't make it
That much easier
It might make it worse."
- In the music-hall Cockney song "Waiting at the Church," a bride is given this reason for being jilted: "Can't get away/To marry you today/My wife won't let me."
- In the song "Soldier, Soldier", the soldier says he can't get married as he doesn't have a coat, hat, gloves or boots. Only after his prospective bride has provided all these things does he say that the other reason he can't marry her is "I have a wife of my own".
- Medea in Jason and the Argonauts and their Quest for the Golden Fleece. Jason seduces Medea with the help of Eros and secretly marries her at Hera's shrine. She helps him complete the insanely difficult tasks her father. She even kills her brother for him, to buy time for them to escape. After embarking on an adventure and obtaining said Golden Fleece, they eventually arrive in Corinth, where Jason engages himself to the daughter of the king. Medea was not happy and launched a famously brutal Roaring Rampage of Revenge. Makes this trope Older Than Feudalism, and Jason an idiot for offending his patron goddess.
- In Pacific Mythology, there is Aiwohikupua. He was originally from Tahiti, and he vowed that he would never marry a woman from Hawaii. He had a relationship with a Puna chiefess named Laieikawai, and they eventually got engaged. Then he sailed off to Hawaii, and he met a beautiful Tsundere named Hinaikamalama. She is actually a form of the fire goddess Pele. He bet himself in a game of chance against Hinaikamalama, and got engaged to her. They had an argument, and he sailed away to cool off and escape her temper. Then he met and became smitten with the ice goddess Poli'ahu, who kind of gave him a What the Hell, Hero?. But she also had feelings for him, so she offered to release him from his vows, on the condition that he become her husband. They traded their capes to seal their arrangement. Aiwohikupua started the rites to break off his engagement to Laieikawai and to prepare for the wedding to Poli'ahu. Then he ran off with Hina, and Poli'ahu attacked her and him with chills and fever, then returned home to Mauna Kea. Hinaikamalama left Aiwohikupua, and he was ostracized for his cheating ways.
- In the old-school WWF: during her on-screen marriage to Triple H, Stephanie McMahon was drunk enough not to remember about it anything until the groom made the announcement at her wedding to Test. This was rendered pointless at the Armageddon PPV in December 1999, when Stephanie turned heel on her own father, during his match with Triple H. Incidentally McMahon and Triple H later got married in real life (the bride was sober then).
- In Doc Rat, Ben put off marrying, and even having sex with, Daniella in part because he remembered he was legally married. He married someone when he was young, but she left him and moved to America. He never bothered to get an annulment at the time, and forgot about it. He ultimately put the effort forward to locate his wife and get a divorce finalized so he could proceed with his life with Daniella.
- "Sparky" from Juvenile Diversion not only forgot his wedding along with his name, but mistook his dead squadmate for himself and wrote to his wife that he witnessed himself die. Needless to say, his wife was not pleased.
- Used as a Brick Joke in Scandinavia and the World. Denmark pronounced Sweden and Norway being civil union partners in the comic's first strip and mentioned in the comic's third year anniversary with Norway upset Sweden forgetting it.
- Trace in TwoKinds, having amnesia, fully forgets that he was married. His wife, Saria, does not. Later on, it turns out he's NOT married anymore as Saria has been dead for years; in fact, her murder at the hands of Keidran bandits was his Start of Darkness. The woman they encountered is actually her ghost, who's just happy that Trace has gone back to the person he used to be.
- The Simpsons had an episode where Homer and Flanders' "Vegas wives" - two cocktail waitresses they had accidentally married several seasons earlier during a drunken bender at Caesar's Palace - reappeared long after they (and the viewers) had forgotten about them. The local judge ruled that polygamy, or "Mormon Hold-Em" was legal in Nevada and therefore Homer and Ned had to support both wives.
- Well, Homer did. Ned's "real" wife had died by this point, so he just had to try to be a good husband to his new one. (Un)fortunately, she quickly grew tired of his squeaky-clean lifestyle and ran for the hills.
- Also of note: Homer got rid of his Vegas wife by tricking her into marrying Grandpa, which apparently works like an automatic annulment in whatever state Springfield is in.
- Done hilariously on Camp Lazlo. One season ended with Jane, the love of Lumpus' life, getting engaged to the next guy who walked up: some old man. A season later, they almost got married—-but in the middle of the wedding, his other three wives complained. His excuse? Senility.
- This may come up with one's religious practices. For example, a Catholic may get legally divorced but may discover years later that they need to qualify for an annulment to remarry in the Church. (This is not so much a "church divorce" as a Retcon, essentially stating that the marriage failed to meet the requirements of the Church, and therefore wasn't valid and therefore never happened.) Traditional Jews have similar practices; there is even a specific term, agunah, for a woman whose husband has not yet divorced her, however long they have been apart.
- In ancient times, Jews with jobs that required long and dangerous travel (such as soldiers, sailors, and caravaners) had a custom of leaving a certificate of divorce behind to be opened after a certain date, to spare their wives this inconvenience.
- May be a borderline case, but in his Psychopathology of Everyday Life, Sigmund Freud related an anecdote of a recently-married woman who was walking around Vienna with a friend of hers, and pointed to a man across the street, saying, "Look, there's Mr. X!" Mr. X, of course, was her new husband. The husband and wife had a good laugh over that story later, but Freud felt a chill when he first heard it. As he predicted, their marriage ended badly.
- In Hamilton, Ontario, there is a section of a street called "Hess Village" - the entire run is cobbled and covered in pubs and bars. And a wedding chapel. They actually have a sign in the window saying they don't do drunk weddings.
- In Married by America was a discovery that one of the contestants was already married; she tried to justify going on the show by saying it was an impulsive Vegas marriage and she and the man broke up soon afterwards and never actually lived together, but the fact that neither ever bothered to annul it got her kicked off anyway.
- While people don't tend to forget they are married without amnesia or something of the kind, it is quite common to make some mistake in filing the divorce papers, and then not finding out the divorce was invalid until one party tries to remarry.
- During his Presidential campaign of 1828, Andrew Jackson's wife was accused of bigamy. She had separated from her first (and abusive) husband in 1790, and both she and Jackson thought she was divorced. She wasn't. They got matters straightened out in 1794, but if you think that minor detail wouldn't make any difference you don't know American politics.
- The scandal probably contributed to Rachel Jackson's early death, as bigamy (on a woman's part, at least) was considered no better than whoredom.
- Janeane Garofalo was surprised to learn that for the past twenty years, she was married to producer Rob Cohen of The Big Bang Theory (see above under Live-Action TV) and forgot about it: more to the point, they didn't know their drive-thru Vegas wedding counted in the eyes of the law. They quickly divorced so Cohen could marry his new paramour, though the IRS might give them both a headache.