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Can I be Sued if I Date a Married Man or Woman?

So you met a guy. He is a great guy and you can tell. You are smitten. By the way, he told you, he is “still married” to his ex-wife (he already calls her his “ex”) but he is in the process of separating from her. Sometimes marriage is a technicality, he says. It’s just a piece of paper.

You believe him, you follow your heart, and you enjoy the hours, the days, the weeks and months of new-love bliss that follow. Your “boyfriend” (Yes, you call him that, and he calls himself that!) follows through on getting that next piece of paper—the divorce—from his (ex) wife.

Then a sheriff’s deputy shows up knocking on your door. You open the door, and the deputy hands you a pile of documents. “It’s a complaint and summons,” the deputy tells you. “You’ve been sued.”

Welcome to the land of criminal conversation and alienation of affections. Those two causes of action—or grounds to sue a person--have been abolished in most states, however North Carolina is one of a handful of states that still allow jilted spouses to sue the paramours of their mates for criminal conversation and alienation of affections.

Technically, the suit is not “criminal,” nor is one brought based on “conversation” alone. A spouse has a legal right to enjoy the service and companionship of a mate, and if you steal that away—so to speak—the spouse can sue you for damages. An alienation of affections action works the same way. The spouse of a married paramour sues you for alienating his affections away from his wife and, instead, towards you.

You are to blame, essentially, for destroying a marriage, and you can be made to pay big bucks for it. In recent years, juries in North Carolina have awarded jilted spouses millions of dollars in criminal conversation and alienation of affections actions.

In order for a jilted spouse to succeed in an alienation of affections action, she must prove that—before you entered the picture—she enjoyed a loving and healthy marital relationship with her husband.

In order to prevail in a criminal conversation action, on the other hand, the jilted spouse need only prove that you engaged in sexual relations with her husband during her marriage to him. If the spouse is successful in her actions against you, you are the one that has to pay up, not the husband.

Of course, if the roles are reversed and a wife cheats on her husband, the jilted husband can sue his wife’s paramour. Since courts in North Carolina now recognize same-sex marriages, it is likely that courts will eventually recognize same-sex criminal conversation and alienation of affections actions, although in some actions the traditional definitions of actionable sexual contact may present difficulties for claimants.

Heart-balm actions can be used as leverage in divorce cases.

In North Carolina, criminal conversation and alienation of affections actions—nicknamed heart-balm claims—are often filed along with or during litigation of a pending divorce case. One scenario that may commonly arise, for instance, sees a husband and wife having difficulty agreeing on how much monthly support payable to the wife is appropriate. They also disagree on how to divide their assets. The husband claims the wife is entitled to less-than-half of the couple’s marital assets; she claims she is entitled to more.

Then the wife finds out her husband has a girlfriend. In fact, she learns through his Facebook account, he has had the girlfriend for some time. She tells her lawyer, and her lawyer files criminal conversation and alienation of affections actions against the girlfriend and serves them upon her.

Now the husband has a legal mess with his wife and a legal mess with his girlfriend, and the wife knows it. She tells her husband, through her lawyer, that she will drop the criminal conversation and alienation of affections actions against the husband’s girlfriend if he agrees to additional monthly support payments and an unequal division of property in her favor.

This is called leverage. The wife is using the husband’s (and his girlfriend’s) poor choices as leverage to get what she wants in her divorce case. She has every legal right to do so, assuming the facts as she presents them are true or that it is reasonable, based on what she has seen and heard, to believe they are true.

Defending against criminal conversation and alienation of affections actions can be embarrassing, not to mention costly to paramours, and they can damage a cheating spouse’s chances of resolving a pending divorce case on favorable terms.

Tread carefully when romancing a “separated” spouse.

Criminal conversation and alienation of affections actions are unpopular with many lawyers and legislators, and someday the actions may be abolished in North Carolina. As long as these causes of action remain viable, however, separated spouses and those involved in relationships with separated spouses must tread carefully.

If you or someone you know has any questions regarding criminal conversation, alienation of affection or any related type of matter feel free to contact the experienced family law attorneys at Arnold & Smith, PLLC in Charlotte, North Carolina. Call toll free at (955) 370-2828 or Contact Us Here.