Skip to content

Incest Laws: Legal Definitions, Penalties, and Key Considerations

Ben Michael

In every state, incest is illegal. However, the crimes and punishments connected to incest vary from state to state. For instance, state laws may differ regarding which relatives fall under the legal definition of incest.

Incest involves sexual contact between close relatives, including brothers and sisters, parents and children, grandparents and grandchildren, or aunts or uncles with nephews or nieces, according to the Legal Information Institute. It’s illegal in every state, even if both people consent to sexual contact.

“Incest remains one of the most entrenched taboos in American society,” according to an article in the William & Mary Law Review.

Definition of Incest

Regardless of its taboo status in the U.S.—or perhaps because of it—incest remains a common theme in the “Game of Thrones” and “House of the Dragon” TV series.

Incest also remains mostly secretive. The U.S. Department of Justice calls incest “the hidden crime.” As a result, thousands of cases go unreported each year. However, experts say, children rarely lie about being a victim of incest, although perpetrators often threaten their victims in a effort to silence them.

Between 1980 and 2022, about 15% of U.S. families reported an incident of incest within the family, according to Statista. Yet just 20% of incest victims report the crime to law enforcement agencies.

Laws Regarding Incest

Each state criminalizes incest. There are no federal incest laws. Incest is a felony in some states and a misdemeanor in others, “but the general consensus is that sexual relationships between close relatives are illegal and punishable by law,” says.

Some states stand out for their unique legal stances on incest. For instance:

  • In New Jersey, incest is legal among two people who are at least 18 years old as long as the relationship is consensual. In Rhode Island, the age is 16.
  • In Ohio, incest is illegal only when a parental figure is involved, according to This figure could be a parent, stepparent or guardian, for example.

Texas law clearly spells out the types of incest that are prohibited. Someone in Texas can be charged with a second-degree or third-degree felony if they’re aware that the alleged victim is:

  • The suspect’s ancestor or descendant by blood or adoption.
  • The suspect’s current or former stepchild or stepparent.
  • The suspect’s aunt, uncle, half-aunt or half-uncle.
  • The suspect’s brother or sister, half-brother or half-sister, or adopted brother or sister.
  • The suspect’s niece or nephew, half-niece or half-nephew, or adopted niece or nephew.
  • The son or daughter of the suspect’s aunt or uncle (whole, half or adopted).

Statistics show father-daughter incest is the most common type of incest, followed by brother-sister incest. Most incest incidents involve either an underage victim or underage perpetrator.

In some states, sexual relations between close cousins might be outlawed, but sexual relations between distant cousins might be legal unless they live in the same home.

Texas law outlines two types of incest:

  • Deviate sexual intercourse. This means any contact between the genitals of one person and the mouth or anus of another person “with intent to arouse or gratify the sexual desire of any person.”
  • Sexual intercourse. This means any penetration of the female sex organ by the male sex organ.

Across the U.S., states outlaw sexual relations among relatives who aren’t spouses because of the damage it can inflict on family relationships and the potential for genetic defects if a child is born as a result of incest.

Laws might ban sexual relations not only between blood relatives but also between people who are not blood relatives, including adoptive parents and adopted children, stepparents and stepchildren, and foster parents and foster children. Close cousins are covered, yet distant cousins might not be covered unless they live in the same home.

Criminalization and Penalties

Practically every state treats incest as a felony crime. In fact, a suspect might be charged with a type of certain type of incest, such as incest with a minor or aggravated incest.

Most of the time, if one person in an incest case is a minor and the other person is an adult, the minor is viewed as a victim and the adult is viewed as a criminal suspect.

Someone convicted of an incest charge may be sentenced one year to life in jail or prison.

Incest also might be charged in conjunction with another criminal law, such as rape, statutory rape, child molestation or child abuse. A prosecutor decides which law to use for charging a suspect in an incest case.

Somebody also can be charged with incest for marrying a close relative and engaging in sex with them. In Texas, that relative could even be a first cousin.

In Texas, the worst type of incest, or prohibited sexual content, is between a parent and a child. This applies whether the child is a minor or an adult. Someone suspected of this type of incest can be charged with a second-degree felony, be sentenced to anywhere from 2 to 20 years in prison, and be fined as much as $10,000, or a combination of time behind bars and a fine.

Sexual content between other family members covered by Texas law can be charged with a third-degree felony. If convicted, someone could face 2  to 10 years in prison, a fine as high as $10,000, or a combination of time behind bars and a fine.

Consanguinity and Genetic Risks

If an incest victim becomes pregnant, this raises concerns about the baby inheriting genetic problems. For instance, a consanguineous relationship—meaning the people in the relationship are descended from a common ancestor, particularly two close relatives who get married—might result in a baby born with impaired hearing, heart defects, cognitive issues and other genetically related disorders.

According to the BMJ medical journal, 1 billion people around the world live in countries where marriage among relatives is common. In some Asian, African and Middle Eastern nations, up to half of marriages are consanguineous.

One U.S. study found that three-fourths of incest perpetrators were blood relatives, and one-fourth were not blood relatives, including stepfamilies and adoptive families.

Generally, state laws across the U.S. harshly punish suspects convicted in incest cases. But these laws might differ in ways such as:

  • Whether incest laws are limited to blood relatives, such as parents and children, or whether they extend to relatives who aren’t as close, such as second cousins. Laws might even take a different approach to incest involving adoptive parents and adopted children.
  • Whether consent is involved. In Texas, even an incestuous relationship between two consenting adults result in felony charges.
  • How old a victim is. If a victim is a minor, the penalties might be more strict.
  • How people convicted of incest are punished. Punishments may include a jail or prison sentence, a fine, probation or court-ordered counseling.
  • What the nature of the crime is. For example, some jurisdictions might charge a suspect with incest rape, which indicates the victim was sexually assaulted.

Several organizations offer assistance to incest victims as they seek to recover and their cases go through the legal system:

  • Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), a national nonprofit that supports survivors of incest and other kinds of sexual abuse.
  • Sexual Assault Advocacy Network (SAAN), a national organization that helps sexual assault survivors/advocates and their allies.
  • Incest AWARE, a nationwide alliance of survivors, supporters and organizations who seek to protect children from incest.
  • Survivors of Incest Anonymous, an organization that help survivors of childhood sexual abuse.
  • Crime Victim Services Division of the Texas Attorney General’s Office.
  • Victim services units within law enforcement agencies across Texas.
  • Texas Advocacy Project, which provides free legal assistance and other services to survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence.
  • Texas CASA, a nonprofit that advocates for children in the state’s child welfare system.

Generally speaking, marriage, age, consent and diminished mental capacity aren’t a legal defenses in incest cases. Among the defenses that might be valid are:

  • Insufficient evidence
  • False testimony
  • Contradictory testimony by medical experts or witnesses
  • Adoptive parent/adopted child relationship or stepparent/stepchild relationship developed after sexual relations happened

Insufficient evidence is the most common and perhaps most successful defense in any legal case. Without sufficient evidence to convict a defendant, a jury or judge may find the suspect not guilty. Or a case could be thrown out.

False testimony or contradictory testimony also can weaken an incest case. A lack of strong testimony might lead to a not-guilty verdict or even to a case being dismissed.

Considering the legal complexities, someone accused of incest should seek good legal representation in order to develop a legal strategy and carry out a solid legal defense. Without a proper legal defense, a defendant risks being convicted and perhaps faces a life behind bars.

FAQs About Incest Laws

Is Incest Illegal Everywhere?

Every state has laws on the books that make incest illegal.

What Penalties Can Individuals Face for Incest?

Penalties for an incest conviction may include prison time, jail time, fines, probation or court-ordered counseling.

Are There Any Legal Exceptions for Incest?

Depending on the state, there may be legal exceptions to incest. For instance, a couple of states don’t criminalize incest between consenting adults. And a couple of states limit incest charges to victims of a certain age, such as over 16 or over 18.

How Do Child Protection Laws Address Cases of Incest Involving Minors?

In cases of incest involving minors, child protection agencies often step in to protect young victims. For instance, an agency might restrict the custody and visitation rights of a parent accused of incest involving one of their minor children.

Ben Michael

Ben has vast experience in defending criminal cases ranging from DWIs to assault, drug possession, and many more. He has countless criminal charges dismissed and pled down. Among many other awards, one of the Top 10 Criminal Defense Attorneys in Texas and winner of Top 40 under 40.

Scroll to Top