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Heart-balm laws in context

Heart-balm laws are civil statutes that allow people to bring lawsuits against those who have had a negative impact on their marriage, such as a spouse’s lover. Laws like these have been around since the 1800s and are on the books in Hawaii, Mississippi, New Mexico, South Dakota and Utah, as well as North Carolina.

In September, the North Carolina Court of Appeals tested these statutes. Originally, a lower court found these laws unconstitutional; however, on appeal the judge ruled in favor of them. Heart-balm statutes in North Carolina have two primary elements: alienation of affection and criminal conversation.

What is criminal conversation and alienation of affection?

Criminal conversation is the act of having a physical affair with a married individual. Under common interpretations of the U.S. Constitution, sex is not regulated, unless it causes harm. Since having an affair with a married person could damage the marriage that is the foundation for being able to seek damages for criminal conversation.

Alienation of affection is more complicated. In the above case the judge declared alienation of affection must meet three standards:

  • The marriage must have been genuinely happy.
  • The happy marriage was broken.
  • The person being sued must have caused the marriage to break.

These standards aim to include people whose role in the end of a marriage wasn’t as acute or provable as sexual contact, such as partners in an emotional affair or particularly difficult employers.

Consequences and concerns of heart-balm legislation

These statutes exist due to the value of having laws in place that discourage divisive forces from impacting a happy marriage. The controversy surrounding these statutes arises from the sense that they bring a court and a judge into private matters, and many find that a treacherous precedent.

These laws, however, are an attempt to codify protections of a marital relationship. If you believe that someone has been interfering in your marriage, you should contact an attorney with experience in heart-balm statutes.