If Your Spouse Cheats on You, Can You Sue Their Lover?

It's called an alienation of affection lawsuit, and in some states, it still happens

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Can you be held legally responsible for stealing someone's spouse?
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In cases of infidelity — whether our own, a friend’s, celebrity’s or stranger’s — we often find ourselves debating who’s to blame. Is it the cheater, for straying? The spurned spouse, for driving their partner away? Or is it the illicit lover, for seducing the cheater in the first place?

Of course, infidelity is rarely so straightforward, and it’s arguably impossible to ever lay the blame entirely on the shoulders of any one party. “Alienation of affection” lawsuits, however, attempt to do just that, providing legal recourse for a spurned spouse to seek damages from an ex’s illicit lover. Sushma Subramanian sheds light on the little-known legal proceedings in an article appearing in this month’s issue of Elle, chronicling an alienation of affection lawsuit one North Carolina woman filed against her ex and the woman he cheated with. Elizabeth, the woman who filed the lawsuit, was ultimately awarded $3.2 million; her ex was ordered to pay $2 million, his new wife the remainder.

Alienation of affection lawsuits are relatively rare in the United States, where they currently are allowed in just six states: Hawaii, New Mexico, Mississippi, South Dakota, Utah and North Carolina — the latter being the only one in which they still take place with any frequency. However, in an earlier, weirder part of our nation’s history, alienation of affection suits were actually fairly common. Dating back to the colonial era and borrowed from England, the legal argument behind such suits holds that a third party can be held legally responsible for “stealing” someone’s spouse — which, to be fair, is a concept still reflected in the way we talk about infidelity today. Back then, the guilty party needn’t necessarily be an illicit lover. According to Elle, alienation of affection suits could be brought against meddling mothers-in-law who encouraged their daughters to leave their husbands, or even against a church for luring a man’s wife into a convent.

In those days, obviously, only men could file such suits, because women were thought of as men’s property, not the other way around. As time and society progressed, however, women eventually won the right to file their own alienation of affection lawsuits — hooray feminism. The suits were common as recently as the early 20th century, and in 1911, Alfred Vanderbilt — yes, those Vanderbilts — was even threatened with one by the ex-husband of his new wife.

Of course, as societal ideas continued to change, some began to question whether married women or men should really be considered anyone’s legal property, and the suits gradually fell out of fashion. Alienation of affection statutes were eventually repealed in most states, leaving most spurned spouses today without legal recourse through which to seek revenge. Those who do still have access to this little legal oddity, however, stand to make a solid chunk of change for their pain and suffering. Like Elizabeth, people who win alienation of affection lawsuits can walk away with millions in damages; back in 2011, a judge in Wake County, North Carolina awarded a wronged spouse a record-setting $30 million.

All this to say, if you have a roving eye, best to steer clear of North Carolina.

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