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Alienation of Affection Law Must Go

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Alienation of Affection Law Must Go

I suppose it’s natural to blame someone else for our own mistakes and shortcomings, or when something happens that we don’t like. We blame the teacher when we get a bad grade, and we blame the boss when we get fired. It’s always someone else’s fault but ours. We’re all guilty of this behavior, even politicians. In 2016, Hillary blamed Bernie Sanders and James Comey for her loss to Donald Trump, and in 2020, Trump blamed fake ballots and fake news for his loss to Joe Biden. But the worst kind of “blame game” is when a spouse blames a third party for the dissolution of a marriage. Here’s how it goes: Jane and Joe have been married for ten years, then Joe has an affair with Betty and leaves Jane. Not only will Jane probably get a big divorce settlement from Joe, but she sues Betty for breaking up the marriage in the first place. The legal term for this archaic madness is “alienation of affection,” and, believe it or not, it is still legal in six states, including our beloved North Carolina. State Representative Pricey Harrison of Guilford County wants to change that and hopes that House bill 489 (which she co-sponsored) will do the trick. 

Harrison recently told the Winston-Salem Journal’s Richard Craver that more than 200 alienation of affection cases are filed each year in North Carolina, “some of which have resulted in multi-million dollar verdicts …and are often used to create problems for a defendant, such as attorney’s fees, or to intentionally inflict emotional distress, or as leverage in a divorce or custody proceeding.” Said Harrison, “I, like many, feel that these laws are outdated, based on 17th century English law that viewed a married woman as her husband’s chattel.” 

The legal precedent maybe four centuries old, but you only have to go back a few years to understand how bad it is. In 2010, a North Carolina wife was awarded $9 million dollars in a suit against her husband’s mistress. That same year, a wife prevailed in court against her best friend, who she said, seduced her husband. Not long after that, a Burke County wife was awarded $1 million dollars because she said her husband’s secretary dressed provocatively at work, resulting in an affair that destroyed her marriage. In 212, the wife of a Winston-Salem businessman sued his alleged mistress for $20 million dollars. In a 2017 case involving a married Forsyth County physician and his mistress, the North Carolina Court of Appeals ruled that Alienation of Affection was constitutional. Last year, former State Senator Rick Gunn was sued by a Wake County husband, who claimed that Gunn was having an affair with his wife, which broke up a 20-year marriage.

One reason that alienation of affection suits are unfair is that the accusing party has a pretty easy burden of proof to meet. According to MyFamilyLaw.com, a spouse only has to prove three things: that love existed between the married spouses, that love between the married spouses was destroyed; and, that a third party’s malicious conduct contributed to the loss of affection. The problem is that jury awards are often based on the aggrieved party’s feelings and testimony rather than on hard facts. 

Alienation of affection laws essentially condones extortion and accepts the premise that a lover can steal someone’s spouse. In the 2017 case of the married physician, the Court justified its ruling, saying, “…a broken marriage can mean the loss of all the benefits that a healthy marriage brings to a society. The State has a legitimate interest in protecting the institution of marriage, ensuring that married couples honor their vows, and deterring conduct that would cause injury to one of the spouses.” 

Newsflash: It’s not Big Brother’s job to maintain or sustain marital relationships. And here’s another shocking truth: No one can break up a marriage except one or more of the spouses themselves. House bill 489 bears this out, and I wish Ms. Harrison success in getting it passed.

Jim Longworth is the host of Triad Today, airing on Saturdays at 7:30 a.m. on ABC45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 11 a.m. on WMYV (cable channel 15).

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