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Alienation of Affection

It is not an issue most people think about, but if you became involved with a married man or woman, could there be legal consequences for you? Sure, if you are the married partner, you might imagine that divorce is a probable outcome. If you're familiar with family law rules, you might even know that infidelity can impact a spouse's entitlement to alimony. But what about the other person, the one who isn't married? To the surprise of many, even this person could be involved in a legal dispute related to his or her actions. To learn more about how such cases play out in the Lake Norman area, keep reading.

First, let's talk through an example. Hypothetically, you met a guy (or girl, the law makes no distinction for the sex of the party) and he seemed swell. You hit it off and begin dating and learn that he is technically married, but in the process of separating. You may hesitate, but when you learn that the marriage is essentially done, you figure there is no harm. As the divorce progresses, one day you get served with a court summons from his soon-to-be ex-wife. You have now been sued for your involvement with a married man.

If your first thought is that this all sounds a bit outdated, you would be right. Most states in the U.S. have eliminated the ability of a spouse to sue a person for participating in an affair. North Carolina, however, remains a hold out and continues to allow lawsuits over criminal conversation and alienation of affection, two aspects commonly associated with an affair that are further defined below.

Despite the name, criminal conversation cases aren't actually criminal. The name comes from the idea that a spouse has the sole legal right to enjoy the companionship of his or her spouse and if some other party interferes in that companionship, essentially stealing away the confidence of your partner, then you can sue that person for damages. To win such a case, the wronged spouse only needs to show that the lover engaged in sexual relations with his or her spouse during the course of the marriage. This can be tricky to do, but if it succeeds then the lover, not the cheating spouse, can be forced to pay financial compensation.

Alienation of affection works much the same way. The wronged spouse sues the lover of the other spouse, blaming that person for alienating his or her affections. For such a claim to succeed, the wronged spouse would need to show that before the new paramour entered the picture there was a healthy and loving marriage. After the lover arrives, this loving marriage deteriorates, proving that the affection that once existed was destroyed by the affair.

These two claims, criminal conversation and alienation of affection are jointly referred to as heart-balm claims, apply regardless of gender. If a woman cheats, then the man she is having the affair with can be sued for alienation of affection. Same if a man cheats with a woman, the new woman is vulnerable to a claim for criminal conversation. What about same-sex cases? Now that North Carolina recognizes same-sex marriage, it's likely a matter of time before a court hears such a case and the rules get extended to cover same-sex relationships as well.

So what is the outcome of most of these claims? In some extraordinary cases, juries have awarded serious money to the wronged spouse. These are usually high profile cases involving wealthy spouses, but the potential for a sizable monetary award does exist. In other cases, the threat of bringing a heart-balm case is just that, a threat. The wronged spouse can use the threat of a case as leverage to extract what he or she wants from the divorce. If the cheating spouse is uncooperative, the wronged spouse may just bring a claim for alienation of affection, drawing attention to an issue that most people would rather keep quiet.

If you have experienced infidelity in your marriage and have questions or concerns regarding criminal conversation or alienation of affection matters, please feel free to contact the experienced Mooresville family law attorneys at Arnold & Smith, PLLC. Call us at (704) 370-2828.