Family Law

What's "Alienation of Affection?"

By Lina Guillen, Attorney
Learn more about homewrecker lawsuits below.

What is Alienation of Affection?

Alienation of affection lawsuits (also known as “homewrecker” or “heartbalm” lawsuits), are civil tort claims. As its monikers suggest, an alienation of affection case is brought by a spouse who’s been deserted as a result of a third party’s actions. The deserted spouse files the lawsuit against the third party for the loss of affection that was provided through the marriage.

Alienation of affection lawsuits are usually filed against third-party lovers, but anyone that interfered with a marriage can be named as a defendant, such as parents, in laws, clergy members, and even therapists who recommended divorce to a deserting spouse.

Almost all states have abolished these types of cases, but the following seven states still allow homewrecker lawsuits; Hawaii, Illinois, New Mexico, North Carolina, Mississippi, South Dakota, and Utah.

How Do I Prove My Alienation of Affection Lawsuit?

You’ll need to show the following:

  • you and your spouse were in a happy marriage, one with genuine affection and love
  • the love and affection was alienated and destroyed
  • the third person’s wrongful and malicious behavior directly caused the alienation, and
  • you (the innocent spouse) were damaged in some way.

With alienation of affection, you don’t have to prove that your spouse had extramarital sex, only that the third party’s wrongful conduct led to the end of the marriage and the resulting loss of affection.

Alienation of Affection Remedies

Injured spouses can seek money damages from the defendant based on the loss of consortium (marital affection and fellowship), mental anguish, humiliation, injury to health, and/or loss of support. Innocent spouses may also request punitive damages (money damages to punish defendants for their bad actions).

The Tide May Be Turning in North Carolina

North Carolina has always led the pack in terms of the number and notoriety of alienation cases. It sees, on average, about 200 alienation of affection lawsuits filed each year.

In one North Carolina case, a jury awarded wife Cynthia Shackelford $9 million from her cheating husband’s mistress after finding that the other woman ruined her long-term marriage (33 years).

But in 2014, Forsyth County Superior Court Judge John Craig III dismissed Angela Rockroth’s alienation of affection claim, ruling that it was no longer a valid action in North Carolina. He stated that it was an obsolete relic of a bygone day—one which violated constitutional rights. It will be interesting to see if this decision is indicative of a new trend in North Carolina and the other states that still allow these suits.

Your Options

Unless you live in one of the states mentioned above, your options are limited to filing for a divorce or legal separation. If your spouse had an affair, you may be able to allege it as the ground (basis) for your divorce. Depending on where you live, adultery may impact a court's decision on alimony and property division.

The laws vary dramatically from state to state, so you should contact a local divorce attorney for advice.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • What can I do if I win my alienation of affection lawsuit, but the other person claims they can't pay the damages?
  • Can I sue my spouse's partner even if we've been divorced for five years now?
  • My wife "loaned" her boyfriend several thousands of dollars from our bank accounts. Is there any way I can sue him for the return of that money?

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