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Love’s Labor’s Lost Lawsuits: Alienation of Affection and Criminal Conversation in North Carolina

Has some attractive Romeo run off with your wife? Have you found that your husband has been cheating on you with another woman? Sometimes the best response isn’t to split up or demand a divorce. In North Carolina, you have the option to sue the third party for coming between you and your true love: so-called “broken hearts” lawsuits.

The Tort Law of Romance

A tort is an act that causes injury to someone because of another person’s negligent behavior, or negligent inaction. Sometimes actions labeled as torts are criminal offenses, but often they are purely injuries between the two parties involved.

Historically, the law treated married women as if they were a form of property owned by their husbands. Thus, when a third party became romantically involved with a married woman, the law considered this a tort injury against the husband, because it soiled his “property.” In such a case, a husband could go to court to demand the lover pay him compensation for taking away his wife’s affection. The eight states which retain the tort of alienation of affection now do not place any restriction on the sex of the person filing the lawsuit. Each year, North Carolina residents file an estimated 250 to 500 claims under the alienation of affection law.

Alienation of Affection Lawsuits in North Carolina

For the sake of example, we will assume that a married couple—we’ll call them John and Mary—are suffering marital problems because Mary has fallen in love with someone whom we’ll call Walter. (Bear in mind that our example will show John filing a lawsuit against Walter, but it could just as well be Mary filing a lawsuit against Rosanna, John’s extramarital girlfriend.)

Contrary to what many people believe, a lawsuit for alienation of affection does not require John to prove there was a sexual relationship between Mary and Walter. Rather, he needs to show that Walter damaged John and Mary’s marital relationship. Specifically, John’s attorneys would have to convince a jury that:

  • There was a loving marital relationship between John and Mary before Walter arrived;
  • Walter’s relationship with Mary damaged or destroyed the loving marriage between John and Mary; and
  • Walter’s willful or malicious conduct aided this erosion of marital love.

It’s possible a lawsuit could be filed against someone who does not have a romantic relationship with one of the spouses. For instance, John could file a lawsuit against his mother-in-law, Gretchen, if she had poisoned Mary’s opinions of John and had strenuously (and successfully) urged Mary to flee the marriage.

According to chapter 52, section 52-13 of the North Carolina General Statutes, a third-party relationship that begins while the couple is physically separated—with the intention of permanent separation, such as before a divorce—cannot lead to alienation of affection. The law provides a three-year time limit for filing a North Carolina alienation of affection suit.

A successful lawsuit for alienation of affection would compensate the injured spouse for the value of the marital relationship that was damaged. Recent cases in North Carolina have led to damage awards and settlements valued at millions of dollars.

Lawsuits for Criminal Conversation in North Carolina

The counterpart to alienation of affection is called criminal conversation. Criminal conversation in North Carolina law says that a marriage was damaged because of a sexual relationship between one spouse and a third party. Each adulterous act can potentially give a cause of action for a North Carolina criminal conversation lawsuit.

A criminal conversation suit says nothing about love or affection; it’s all about sex outside the marriage. The plaintiff in such a case need only prove two things:

  • A legitimate marriage existed between the plaintiff and the spouse, and
  • The spouse engaged in an act of sexual intercourse with a third party.

Similarly to alienation of affection, a sexual relationship that develops while the married couple is separated is unable to give rise to a criminal conversation case. There is also a three-year time limit for filing a criminal conversation lawsuit.

If a third person has caused your marriage to suffer, it’s time to consult the Wilmington marriage law attorneys at Speaks Law Firm. We can help you look at your situation with a calm eye, so you can decide whether your marriage can be repaired or if divorce or an alienation of affection lawsuit would best serve your long-term interests.

Contact our family law firm today by calling 910-341-7570 or 877-593-4233 (toll-free). Schedule a confidential meeting with a compassionate attorney as soon as possible to set your life on solid ground again.


R. Clarke Speaks
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Trial Lawyer and Founder of Speaks Law Firm, P.C.