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The High Cost of Having an Affair

Alienation of affection lawsuits have won millions of dollars.

Cynthia Shackelford believed her husband of 33 years was happy. However, he began spending later and later nights in his office and incurring suspicious charges on his credit card. Cynthia eventually grew suspicious, hired a private investigator, and learned that her husband was cheating on her. Her world was shaken. Like many other scorned spouses, she was devastated, betrayed, and angry.

However, Cynthia did something that most scorned spouses never think of doing—she filed a lawsuit against her husband’s mistress. And in 2010, a North Carolina jury awarded her $9,000,000 (you read that correctly) from the mistress as compensation for “deliberately seducing” Cynthia’s husband and breaking up their marriage.[1] (The mistress has appealed the verdict.)

The legal term for this type of lawsuit is an “alienation of affection” claim. Only North Carolina and six other states allow them—Hawaii, Illinois, Mississippi, New Mexico, South Dakota, and Utah. Exact requirements for the suits vary from state to state, but in order for a scorned spouse to prevail in an alienation of affection lawsuit, he or she generally has to show that:

  1. Love between the married spouses existed before the defendant came on the scene.
  2. The marital love was destroyed as a result of the defendant’s actions.
  3. The defendant’s conduct constituted malicious interference with the marital relationship.

It is unclear how much longer alienation of affection lawsuits will remain a viable option for scorned spouses. Such claims have been widely criticized by law professors, judges, and legislatures as anachronistic vehicles for petty revenge.

For Cynthia, however, the lawsuit meant more than revenge. In her words: “My main message is to all those women out there who might have their eyes on some guy that is married to not come between anybody.”[2]

This appears to be good ethical advice and—at least in seven states—good financial advice as well.


[2] Id.

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