A set of bills introduced in the North Carolina House and Senate would make changes to the rules for divorce and eliminate “alienation of affection” and “criminal conversation” lawsuits. If they are passed into law, what would the changes be?
What are ‘heart balm’ lawsuits?
North Carolina is among just six states that allow people to sue someone who has engaged in infidelity with their spouse. There are two types of “heart balm” suits: alienation of affection and criminal conversation.
“Alienation of affection” means that a person has allegedly acted wrongfully to deprive you of your spouse’s affections during your marriage or before your separation.
“Criminal conversation” means that a person has allegedly had sexual relations with your spouse during your marriage or before separation.
Over 200 alienation of affection lawsuits get filed each year in North Carolina, according to State Rep. Pricey Harrison of Guilford County. Sometimes, they result in multimillion-dollar awards. Other times, heart balm suits could be used perniciously, such as to get leverage in a divorce case.
There have been numerous attempts over time to eliminate heart balm suits from North Carolina law, and in 2009 the law governing criminal conversation was amended to limit its scope. Some, like Harrison, believe that they are based on outdated concepts and treat women as if they were property. However, some feel they allow people to get some satisfaction after a third party interferes with their marriages.
The proposed bills would prohibit future heart balm lawsuits, although it wouldn’t affect any that have already been filed.
Proposed changes to the divorce process
Senate Bill 459 and its companion bill, House Bill 489, would make getting a divorce a little bit easier in North Carolina. Currently, North Carolina residents must separate for at least a year before they can file for divorce. Moreover, that separation must generally be complete, with at least one party intending for it to be permanent. If the parties continue living together or resume their marriage after the initial separation, their separation may not count.
Under the proposals, the separation period would be shortened to six months and could be waived altogether if the parties agree in an uncontested divorce with no minor children.
The separation period would still count if the spouses engaged in “isolated incidents” of sexual intercourse with each other during their separation.
The Greensboro News & Record says that the bills both lack Republican sponsors, and that could mean they aren’t likely to advance during the 2021 session.
If you are considering divorce or a heart balm suit, it’s important to talk to an experienced, compassionate family attorney who can assess your case and explain the process of filing such a lawsuit.