Is incest illegal? What are incest laws and criminal charges associated with it?

Incest is referred to as a sexual relationship among people who are related closely by blood. The laws for this kind of relationship vary across states. But is incest illegal in the United States? Like many other countries in the world, incest is illegal in the United States with some harsher punishments and stricter definitions in place for who can marry whom and have a sexual relationship.

As said, incest is illegal so it does fall under felony and misdemeanor charges depending on the case and situation. The crime particularly is committed when blood-related people engaged in sexual activity, live together as man and wife and get married. More or less all the communities across the globe find incest taboo and variable laws according to jurisdiction reflects the same.

In almost every state in the United States child abuse is referred to as a felony crime, but in a few states, having an incest relationship between adults is also a crime.

Is incest illegal? How is it defined?

The definition of incest is defined widely and differently in almost every state. In some states, it is limited to only having sex or engaging in sexual activity. While in others, not only engaging in the activity, marrying, and living romantically physical as a man and wife are referred to as an incest crime.

According to incest laws in the United States, they prohibit intimate relationships between parents and children, sisters and brothers, and among grandparents and grandchildren. In some states, it is also a crime to get into an intimate relationship between aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews, and nieces. In some states, incest laws prohibit intimate relations between half-blood relatives, step-relatives, and adopted relatives. However, second and third cousins are allowed to marry and have relationships with the first cousin in most states.

Also, the state’s incest laws are mostly limited to heterosexual relationships. For instance, in Georgia, the term incest is defined as the sexual intercourse between daughter and father, son, and mother, including step-children, half-siblings, grandchildren and grandparents, uncles and niece, and aunts and nephews.  In North Dakota, incest laws do not only prohibits marriage but cohabitation between first cousins and the individuals who are more closely related in a blood relationship no matter whole or half-relative.

Is Adult incest a crime?

According to almost all the state incest laws, incest between adult relatives is a crime. However, many legal scholars still argue that the laws for incest should be rethought. As for some states like Rhode Island, they repealed the incest criminal legislation in 1989. Similarly, New Jersey has no criminal penalties for incest accusations. However, marriage between adults connected with blood relationships is void in both states. In the same manner, other state laws also prevent closely related marriages, if found guilty, there are harsh penalties even.

Child Victims of incest

Unfortunately, there are many cases where child incest is reported across the United States. While adult incest is rarely seen and reported in the state courts. The state incest laws are applied to the conditions where a child is under the age of consent (normally the age of 16- 18 according to state laws) is referred to as child sexual abuse.  Until the age of consent, any sexual activity or behavior including incestuous activity is a forcible sex crime.

Some states penalize the incest defendants more severely than any other sexual crimes committed under the consensual age of children.

Therefore, although it is illegal for anyone to have intimate relationships or engage in sexual activity with adolescent boys or people who commit incest crimes with their grandchildren are expected to face longer incarcerations.

But that does not mean that sexual activities other than incest with adults are legal. Of course, people will be punished more harshly and charged with battery and assault charges if they are found guilty of involving sexual abuse without the consent of the other party or by force.

Some state statutes, it is considered to be a form of statutory rape if there is a consensual sexual relationship between teens and related adults. In such states, a sexual relationship might also be considered statutory rape between a consensual age girl and her older half-brother. In addition to that, some states also do not consider it a criminal act if a girl makes an intimate relationship with an unrelated man regardless of age.

In case of damage, the familial relationship between the couple would help determine the fact. In such cases, the fact may not depend on whether the victim persuaded the intimate relationship. Some states criminalize having sex in a household when people are not related to each other.

For the same and many other reasons, incest is often charged for the violation of different laws such as child molestation, child abuse, statutory rape, or rape. Once the incident occurs, the prosecutor will determine which charge to bring according to the state laws. Also, if the prosecutor sees that the relationship does not fall under the statute of incest charges technically, then he may impose any other sex charges on the crime instead.

Pursuing incest charges?

A prosecutor can bring incest charges against anyone who engaged in an intimate or sexual relationship knowingly with the person who comes under the incest laws. The attempted incest charges will be imposed if a person engaged in an intimate activity but no intercourse happens.

However, incest charges cannot be waived off even if the defendant argues that the victim consented. There will be still incest charges which maybe even harsh if the victim is under 12. In addition to that, the penalties can be much more severe if the victim did not consent. Here, a defendant will also have the rape and attempted to rape charges. Plus, engaging in a sexual relationship with a person under the age of consent would bring charges of statutory rape along with incest charges.

Incest charges would be imposed on both parties if they are close to each other’s age. The charge will be on the older person if the age difference between the parties is much greater such as child and parent. The defendant would be considered as a perpetrator and the younger one would be a victim. If both individuals under the majority age were found in a relationship, the prosecutor might send the case to the juvenile court.

This might give a sense that getting out of the incest charges is almost impossible. But there are some defenses other than assuming that the incident happened. A defense that is accepted as a procedural defense is the statute of limitations. Oftentimes, the defense may be accepted if a long time has been passed between incest and the discovery.

This happens in the state where the statutes of limitations bound the prosecutor to bring the case in the specified amount of time after the incident happened. A defendant can easily get away with no incest charges or penalties if he proves that the statutes of limitation have expired.

Probable penalties of incest

In the United States, incest is considered a felony crime as the activities like rape and statutory rape are connected to it. This essentially means that the defendant may end up with the conviction of many years behind the bars. On the other hand, if the crime falls under misdemeanor, then the defendant would spend months in jail.

Also, the sitting jury would also order the people involved in incest to live and remain separate. If a parent was involved in incest, the child may send to a foster home. If the defendant gets the incest charges along with the sex crime, the defendant would be registered as a sex offender.

Incest penalties according to the states

  • Arkansas: 3 to 10 years in prison and a fine of $10,000
  • Alaska: 2 to 12 years in prison and a fine up to $50,000
  • Alabama: 1 to 10 years in prison and a fine up to $15,000
  • Arizona: 1 to 3.75 years in prison
  • Colorado: 2 to 12 years in prison and a fine of $2,000 to $750,000
  • California: Probation or up to 3 years in prison and a fine of $10,000
  • Connecticut: 1 to 5 years in prison and a fine of $5,000
  • District of Columbia: Up to 12 years in prison and a fine of $37,500
  • Delaware: Up to 1 year in prison and a fine of $2,300
  • Florida: Up to 15 years in prison and a fine of $5,000
  • Georgia: 10 to 30 years in prison
  • Hawaii: Up to 5 years in prison
  • Illinois: 2 to 10 years in prison and a $25,000 fine
  • Idaho: Up to a life sentence in prison
  • Iowa: Up to 5 years in prison and a fine of $7,500
  • Indiana: 1 to 6 years in prison
  • Kentucky: 5 years to life in prison
  • Kansas: 5 months to 136 months in prison
  • Louisiana: 5 years to 30 years
  • Maryland: 1 to 10 years in prison
  • Maine: Up to 5 years in prison and/or a $5,000 fine
  • Michigan: Up to 2 years in prison and/or a fine up to $500
  • Massachusetts: Up to 20 years in prison
  • Mississippi: Up to 10 years in prison or a fine up to $500
  • Minnesota: Up to 10 years in prison
  • Missouri: Up to 7 years in prison
  • Nebraska: 1 to 25 years in prison
  • New Hampshire: 10 to 20 years in prison
  • Nevada: 2 years to life in prison and a fine of $10,000
  • New Jersey: At least 15 years without parole for 2nd-degree assault; up to 18 months for criminal sexual contact
  • New York: 10 to 25 years in prison
  • New Mexico: Up to 3 years in prison and a fine of $5,000
  • North Dakota: Up to 5 years in prison and a fine of $10,000
  • North Carolina: 10 months to 182 months in prison
  • Oklahoma: Up to 10 years in prison
  • Ohio: 2 to 6 years in prison
  • Oregon: Up to 20 years in prison and a fine of $375,000
  • Rhode Island: No criminal prosecution for parties aged 16 or older
  • Pennsylvania: Up to 10 years in prison
  • South Dakota: Up to 15 years in prison and a fine of $30,000
  • South Carolina: 6 months to 5 years in prison and a minimum fine of $500
  • Tennessee: 3 to 15 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000
  • Utah: Up to 5 years in prison and a fine of $5,000
  • Virginia: 1 to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $100,000
  • Vermont: Up to 5 years in prison and a fine of $1,000
  • West Virginia: 5 to 15 years in prison and a fine of $500, to $5,000
  • Washington: Up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000
  • Wyoming: Up to 15 years in prison and a fine of $10,000
  • Wisconsin: Up to 40 years in prison and a fine of $100,000


In some states, it is legal to get married to your first cousin. But some states have made it illegal. So if you live in California and are married to your first cousin, it would become illegal if you travel to another state. 

Provided that the sex was consensual among the siblings, any case with non-violent charges will be trialed at juvenile court. Additionally, the record of the case will not be disclosed until they become adults. If a teen involves in a violent sex crime such as rape or intercourse forcibly, the case will be tried at adult court.

Yes, in many states, incest is a crime. Therefore, anyone convicted of the crime would have to register himself as a sex offender for a lifetime.

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