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All About Adultery in North Carolina (Part 2 of 2)

Part one of this topic looked at adultery as it relates to alimony. In North Carolina, adultery can impact several legal rights, such as a legal separation, inheritance rights, criminal conversation, and even property ownership.  

Adultery: Duty of Third Party to Warn Spouse of STD

If a husband or wife passes a sexually transmitted disease (STD) to the other spouse as a result of his or her adultery, the innocent spouse may with a civil suit for financial damages against the man or woman who passed the STD to the husband or wife. To successfully prove a claim for negligent infliction of an STD, the victim spouse must prove the source of the STD, and that the infected person knew or should have known he or she was infected with venereal disease. Because it is foreseeable that the two spouses would have intercourse, the infected person has a legal duty to abstain from sexual contact, or at least a legal duty to warn the innocent spouse.

Adultery: Criminal Conversation

The term criminal conversation (CC) is somewhat misleading. Although it sounds like a crime, it is not. Instead, CC is a civil lawsuit for money damages. A married person may file a claim for CC against the third party who had sexual intercourse with his or her spouse. CC holds that third party financially accountable to the husband or wife for interference with his or her marital conjugal relationship, which is protected by law. Although the unfaithful spouse is not on the hook for financial damages, he or she generally testifies in a jury trial about the acts that took place. Alienation of affections is a completely different lawsuit that addresses alienating or stealing the spouse, regardless of whether there was sexual intercourse. CC is exclusively based on sexual intercourse.

Adultery: Divorce from Bed and Board

North Carolina recognizes a fault-based claim called divorce from bed and board (DBB), and one of the grounds for it is adultery. A decree for a DBB does not a “divorce” the husband and wife allowing them to remarry. It is a court decree that declares the spouses to be officially separated. This keeps a spouse from committing abandonment if he or she wants to separate. Instead, if a spouse successfully obtains a DBB, the spouse who committed adultery loses spousal rights to certain inheritance rights, including intestate succession, which is the right to inherit if the other spouse dies without a will. Also lost is the right to take an “elective share” of the deceased spouse’s estate if the deceased spouse tried to “disinherit” him or her, as well as the right to administer that spouse’s estate as an executor or executrix.

Adultery: Criminal Law  

Although it is almost certainly unconstitutional, one criminal statute that is still on the books makes voluntary adultery a crime. NC Gen. Stat. §14-184 is captioned Fornication and Adultery. The statute makes it a Class 2 misdemeanor “[i]f any man and woman, not being married to each other, shall lewdly and lasciviously associate, bed and cohabit together . . .” In cases for alienation of affections and criminal conversation, parties frequently used this criminal law to protect themselves from testifying. Because adultery was a crime, a person who was sued for it could plead the Fifth Amendment to avoid incriminating himself or herself. Doing so in a civil case allows the judge or jury to assume the person did commit adultery. 

Amy A. Edwards is a family law attorney in Greenville, NC, certified by the NC State Bar Board of Legal Specialization as a Family Law Specialist, and is licensed only in NC. Laws change. www.AmyEdwardsFamilyLaw.com © 2017.

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