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Heartbalm Torts in North Carolina

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Heartbalm Torts in North Carolina

A picture of a red, broken heart drawn on a chalkboard with the text "Game Over" written on top. Heartbalm torts allow plaintiffs to pursue a lawsuit even if their marriage is over.

What Is a “Heart Balm” Action?

Heart balm actions (or heart balm torts) are a little old-fashioned. In fact, North Carolina is one of the few states that still recognizes them. They exist in order to right certain wrongs that can happen in a marriage. As their name implies, they are meant to provide a balm to a person’s broken heart.

On one hand, these actions are archaic. They place a very high value on monogamy and marriage. They seem to uphold old-fashioned ideas. They are, after all, based on very old laws meant to punish people for “debauching” another man’s wife. Like many ideas and customs surrounding marriage, heart balm torts were originally formed in a time when women and wives were viewed as a man’s property. That iidea that is very troubling in modern times.

Today, heart balm torts may also seem a little wishy-washy and silly compared to other lawsuits in addition to being outdated. However, they’re still good law in North Carolina, and there are strong arguments in favor of keeping them around. It can be very painful when a romantic partner hurts you. These actions address that pain. They also get at the heart (no pun intended) of what it means to be human: the love, the jealousy, the hurt, the desire for justice and peace. The three heart balm actions are Breach of Promise to Marry, Alienation of Affection, and Criminal Conversation. Let’s discuss each one in a little more detail.

Breach of Promise to Marry

A young bride is standing against a green pillar wearing a wedding dress and huge, fluffy veil. She is holding one arm with her other hand in an insecure pose, and looking to her left with a slightly concerned look on her face. Maybe breach of promise to marry is relevant in this situation.

The Breach of Promise to Marry action is not applicable when a couple mutually decides to end a relationship. It will not apply when someone leaves the relationship for a good reason. It may not even always work when a bride or groom gets cold feet and backs out of the wedding. Where this action tends to work best is where one party strings another party along, for a long time, with a promise to marry that goes unfulfilled.

Case on point: Hutchins v. Day

Consider the case of Hutchins v. Day, 269 N.C. 607, 153 S.E.2d 132 (1967). Mr. Day continually promised his lover, Ms. Hutchins, that they would get married. This promise began while Mr. Day was married to someone else, continued after he got divorced, and lasted right up until he got married–to someone who was not Ms. Hutchins. She was understandably upset, especially when Mr. Day invited her to the wedding! She proceeded to attend–and throw red paint on the bride and wedding party as they walked down the aisle. (Who says legal cases are boring? Unfortunately, I cannot find a version of the case online that includes the background facts, but that happened, I swear).

This 1967 case is still good law today. It indicates that courts will be favorable to plaintiffs who are taken advantage of by romantic partners. The damages in a breach of contract to marry suit may include costs advanced for the wedding and damages for the emotional distress and embarrassment of the dumped spouse. The contract theory of “detrimental reliance” may come into play here. If the party who was dumped detrimentally relied on the promises of the other party–for example, if they quit their job in reasonable anticipation of getting married and being a stay-at-home spouse–they may be compensated for some lost wages.

Damages for intentional infliction of emotional distress would be extremely difficult to obtain. One would have to prove that the runaway bride or groom canceled the wedding with the sole intent of causing the injured party emotional harm. However, it may be possible to collect negligent infliction of emotional distress damages in this type of case. The one type of remedy that is impossible in a Breach of Promise to Marry case is specific performance. Specific performance is a contract remedy in which the court orders the breaching party to carry out the exact terms of the contract. This remedy is impossible here because the court cannot force someone to get married!

What about the engagement ring?

The question about what to do with the engagement ring is tricky. North Carolina is a fault-based jurisdiction and may punish the party at fault and reward the innocent party. This means that in a successful breach of promise to marry lawsuit, the wronged party may be allowed to keep the engagement ring. If the wedding is mutually called off, or the party who was given the ring ends the relationship, the ring will most likely be returned to the giver. The ring is a conditional gift, and the condition that must be met is the marriage. Then again, if the party who was given the ring can prove that it was not meant as an engagement ring but just as a normal, unconditional gift, they will be allowed to keep it. This article has some more information about this tricky subject in North Carolina.

Criminal Conversation

A young white man with a beard is standing in front of a white background. He is wearing a black t-shirt, he is backlit so his face and body are shadowed, and he is holding a cellphone to his hear with a concerned, possibly guilty look on his face. Is he engaging in criminal conversation?

The name of this cause of action might lead you to believe it has to do with conspiring to commit a crime. Nope–it means good old-fashioned cheating. “Conversation” is actually a euphemism for something a lot more adult than talking! This cause of action allows a plaintiff to sue the person their spouse was cheating with. The North Carolina General Statute that governs this cause of action, and Alienation of Affection, is § 52-13. This statute provides that the statute of limitations on these actions is three years, and that the cheating must take place during the marriage, not when the parties have been living separate and apart. To win a criminal conversation case, you must prove that your spouse had sex with the person you are suing during your marriage.

Case on point Cooper v. Shealy:

Cooper v. Shealy,140 N.C.App. 729, 537 S.E.2d 854 (2000) ruled that North Carolina had personal jurisdiction over the defendant (the mistress) in a criminal conversation case even when she only had “minimum contacts with the state.” She had been calling and sending emails to the plaintiff’s husband, enticing him to leave his family for her. Even though she was not a North Carolina resident, those calls and emails established minimum contacts with the state. The Court noted that “North Carolina’s legislature and courts have repeatedly demonstrated the importance of protecting marriage,” in part by keeping the heart balm torts alive. However, they found that if the actual acts of criminal conversation took place in a different state, there may not be a case after all even though there was personal jurisdiction.

Alienation of Affection

A person of indeterminate gender and race is silhouetted against a stormy window with a green sky. They are seated and their hands are clasped in front of them as they lean back against the wall. They look sad and alone. Are they a victim of alienation of affection?

Claims for criminal conversation and alienation of affection are often combined in the same lawsuit. Alienation of affection, like criminal conversation, is a tort that can arise when someone interferes with a marriage. Unlike criminal conversation, the wronged party does not need to prove that the parties had sexual intercourse. Instead they need to prove that the person they are suing destroyed the marriage. The marriage doesn’t have to be perfect to begin with, but it does have to involve love, and perhaps interesting activities with items such as vibrating rabbits, between the spouses and be a functional relationship. You can actually sue someone for alienation of affection even if they are not your spouse’s lover at all. You could sue an interfering in-law who never approved of the marriage and tried to drive it apart. But, without sex being involved, you will need to show that the party you are suing acted out of malice.

Case on point Bishop v. Glazener:

The case of Bishop v. Glazener, 245 N.C. 592, 96 S.E.2d 870, lays out the elements of this claim as “the marriage, the loss of affection or consortium, the wrongful and malicious conduct of the defendant, and a causal connection between such loss and such conduct.” That case also describes what exactly is and isn’t malicious interference by a parent-in-law. In this case, the court found that even though the father-in-law and the husband got along very poorly, and the wife left the husband partially because of that tense relationship, the father-in-law wasn’t maliciously trying to drive the marriage apart.


Heartbalm torts are an interesting part of the history of North Carolina, and are still alive and well in the state today. If you are concerned that you have been the victim of one of these torts, a licensed North Carolina family law attorney may be able to help.





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