Did someone break up your marriage? In 6 states, they might owe you money

'A lot of people, quite frankly, think it is antiquated,' one lawyer said.

October 3, 2019, 5:40 PM

After a North Carolina man was awarded a $750,000 judgment against his ex-wife’s lover, the “alienation of affections” law is back under the spotlight.

Kevin Howard, of Greenville, brought an “alienation of affections” claim against a man who was having an affair with his then-wife. In August, a judge ruled in Howard’s favor.

The law allows individuals to sue others for ruining their marriages. While most states got rid of it years ago, it's still on the books in Hawaii, Mississippi, New Mexico, North Carolina, South Dakota and Utah.

“A lot of people, quite frankly, think it is antiquated and should be abolished,” Cynthia Mills, a lawyer who represented Howard, as well as dozens of other plaintiffs under the claim, told ABC News on Thursday.

The concept of "alienation of affections" comes from old English law when women were considered property and “a man could sue another man for stealing his wife, like when he could sue a man for stealing his horse.”

The law has since evolved, such that women can now sue.

A man could sue another man for stealing his wife, like when he could sue a man for stealing his horse

The basic element, Mills said, is that two people had a happy marriage until “a third party came in and basically seduced the other spouse to leave the marriage and the family.” Sex is not a legal requirement to make the claim.

She noted that the North Carolina law recognizes that all marriages have their ups and downs, but that the marriages could have sustained such tumult "until this third party comes.”

PHOTO: gavel in a courtroom
Tetra Images/Getty Image, FILE

Howard might have been awarded a hefty sum of money, but it’s far from the highest price paid out.

A woman in North Carolina won $9 million in a 2010 lawsuit against a woman she said was involved with her husband of 33 years.

A big payday, however, is not always the driving force, according to Mills.

“They’re concerned about making a statement about the morality of the issue,” she said.

She is currently working with five separate aggrieved spouses, and she guesses that in her 31 years as a lawyer, she has handled 30 such cases. The largest sum a plaintiff she represented received was $5.9 million.

She said that while there have been attempts to repeal the law, including constitutional challenges, it remains “very prevalent" in North Carolina.