Suspecting her husband of 32 years was having an affair, Cynthia Shackelford of North Carolina hired a private investigator who confirmed her fear: her husband was involved in a longstanding liaison with a woman whom he’d met at a local college. Shackelford took legal action, suing her husband’s mistress for “alienation of affection.” She won, and was awarded $ 9 million in damages. Shackelford says the lawsuit wasn’t about the money; it was about sending a message.
The little-known law, which doesn’t exist in California or 42 other states, allows for aggrieved spouses to bring a claim in civil court – separate from family law proceedings – against third parties who knowingly have an affair with a married person. Generally, the plaintiff in such actions must show: 1) the marriage entailed love between the spouses in some degree; 2) the spousal love was alienated and destroyed; and 3) the defendant’s malicious conduct contributed to or caused the loss of affection.
Critics of “alienation of affection” and similar laws consider them to be archaic relics of a bygone era. Jacob Appel of Huffington Post describes them as “vestiges of legal codes that also prohibited divorce and criminalized premarital sex, … a consummate example of the sort of private controversies in which the government has no business meddling.” Likewise, some attorneys feel that such laws unnecessarily escalate family law proceedings and are inconsistent with the policies behind “no fault” divorce, which seek to minimize inquiry into the he-said-she-said interpersonal drama that is often behind the breakdown of marriage. Nevertheless, a handful of states still have “alienation of affection” laws on the books, something to make would-be-marriage-meddlers think twice.
Sources: People Magazine, Huffington Post