Spousal privilege is the legal and policy doctrine that accords confidentiality between spouses with an aim to encourage martial harmony and to protect families. There are two types of spousal privilege: (1) testimonial privilege and (2) communications privilege. Each privilege applies in finite circumstances and requires an inquiry into the status of the marriage.
Testimonial privilege is asserted in criminal cases. In this scenario, one spouse is called to testify against another spouse in a criminal proceeding. The spouse who is being called to the stand can assert testimonial privilege and refuse to testify against the defendant spouse. At the same time, this privilege is not absolute. The witness spouse may choose to waive his or her privilege and testify anyway. This can occur even under the objection of the defendant spouse. In different jurisdictions, there are exceptions to testimonial privilege including in the case of marital rape. For the testimonial privilege to apply, the defendant spouse and the witness spouse must be married at the time the privilege is asserted.