Heart Balm Torts: What They Are and How They Work

What the laws say in North Carolina

Not all marriages work out in the end. The American Psychological Association (APA) reports that somewhere between 40 percent and 50 percent of married couples in the United States eventually get divorced. In some cases, both spouses may agree that it is time for a change; in others, the divorce may be primarily initiated by one of the partners.

There are others still in which a third party may play a role in causing the marriage to split. North Carolina is one of the small number of remaining states that allows aggrieved spouses to take civil legal action against third parties who caused the end of their marriage. Under the state’s heart balm laws, aggrieved persons may be entitled to compensatory damages through a lawsuit.

“There have been many constitutional challenges pursued through the court system,” says Matthew Arnold, a Charlotte family law attorney. “Generally, they’ve been reluctant to overturn the torts. If it’s going to happen, it’s going to have to come from the legislature. And given the political climate in North Carolina right now, I think it’s pretty unlikely that’s going to happen anytime soon.”

Alienation of Affection

There are two different types of heart balm tort claims in North Carolina. The first, alienation of affection, involves interference with a marriage. To hold a third party legally liable for this tort, you must be able to establish the following two elements:

  1. A married couple had a genuine and loving relationship
  2. Through wrongful or malicious actions, a third-party defendant (a paramour) alienated that relationship

Notably, the plaintiff in this type of legal case does not have to prove that the defendant intentionally ruined the marriage or that they engaged in an act of adultery with a happily married person.

Criminal Conversation

The other type of heart balm tort is known as criminal conversation. While it is somewhat similar to alienation of affection—indeed, in many heart balm civil lawsuits, both claims are brought concurrently—it is also a separate cause of action. The elements of criminal conversion are as follows:

  1. There was a valid, intact marriage
  2. The defendant engaged in a sexual relationship with the spouse

A criminal conversion claim is generally considered to be more challenging to defend than is alienation of affection. With alienation of affection, ignorance of a marriage and lack of a genuine loving relationship are both valid defenses. However, neither defense is valid in a criminal conversion claim.

Heart Balm Torts are Complex Legal Claims

In decades past, there were heart balm laws all across the country. However, this only remains a valid legal claim in North Carolina and seven other U.S. states. Arnold says the vast majority of these cases end in settlement, and the million-dollar heart-balm verdicts are few and far between. But to recover damages through a heart balm claim, a plaintiff must present strong and compelling evidence that establishes all relevant legal elements. Similarly, if you are defending yourself in a heart balm tort lawsuit, it is essential that you seek guidance from an experienced family law attorney.  

For more information on this area, see our overview of family law.

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