Beyond Divorce Court: Can You Really Sue a Homewrecker?

When someone feels a third party was responsible for the breakdown of their marriage, they may be tempted to haul that homewrecker into court. But what does that actually look like?

"They ruined my marriage—can I sue?"

While we get this question a lot, an actual court case is a pretty uncommon scenario. Simply put, the ability to file suit against the other woman or man depends on the place of residence, but most states have gotten rid of these types of lawsuits.

Assuming the cheated-on spouse lives in a state that allows this kind of lawsuit, there are two relevant legal claims to know about:

  • criminal conversation, and
  • alienation of affection.

In either kind of claim, the defendant (or "homewrecker") could in theory be ordered to pay "damages" (money) for having caused the plaintiff (the cheated-on spouse who is suing) suffering like mental anguish, humiliation, and loss of support. The plaintiff can also ask for punitive damages, which is basically an additional amount of money designed specifically to punish the defendant for their behavior.

Criminal Conversion Lawsuits

"Criminal conversion" is sort of a misnomer—it's not a criminal case and doesn't lead to jail time or other criminal penalties.

A successful criminal conversion lawsuit requires solid proof (usually gathered by a private investigator) that the plaintiff's spouse engaged in sexual relations with the defendant.

The specifics vary depending on the state, but, in general, to prove criminal conversation, the plaintiff must show:

  • the plaintiff was married to their spouse
  • the defendant had sex with the plaintiff's spouse
  • the sex happened during the marriage (not after separation), and
  • the behavior happened within the state's statute of limitations (for example, no more than three years ago).

Alienation of Affection Lawsuits

When suing for alienation of affection, the plaintiff doesn't have to prove that extramarital sex took place. The foundation of this kind of claim is that the defendant's behavior caused alienation.

Another critical aspect of alienation of affection is that plaintiffs can bring this kind of claim against parties other than the "homewrecker"—potential defendants include anyone considered responsible for the breakup, even therapists, clergy members, and family members. (Some might even think of these cases as "mother-in-lawsuits.")

To prove alienation of affection, the plaintiff has to establish that:

  • the plaintiff and their spouse shared a genuinely loving and affectionate marriage
  • this love and affection was alienated and destroyed
  • the third party's wrongful and malicious conduct directly made that happen, and
  • the plaintiff was harmed in some way.

Outdated Concept or Legitimate Litigation?

So where does all this lead? In one North Carolina case, a jury found that a cheating husband's mistress ruined a marriage and awarded the wife $9 million. In another case in the same state, a husband sued his wife's lover and AshleyMadison.com, claiming the notorious extramarital dating website broke up his 13-year marriage by connecting his wife to the new man, whom she later married.

So, are these laws controversial? Outdated? Ultimately, they're rooted in traditions that are centuries old. One North Carolina family law attorney, Jessica Culver, said, "[They] come from the same dogma that created the idea that women—wives—are their husband's property." VICE went further and called the law "…a sexist tort [for someone] to invoke vengeance on their former spouse."

Wherever you stand reading this, the fact is, these laws only apply to a few states—and even then, North Carolina could soon get rid of them altogether.