Raleigh, N.C. — Stealing someone else's spouse can cost you in North Carolina. State law allows divorcees to sue a person who had an affair with their spouse.
Those who have used the alienation of affection law say that it makes cheaters think twice. Some divorce attorneys, though, say that taxpayers are the ones who pay under the law.
"If you steal a high-income male who's a good husband and you have a hand in that, you should be held accountable," said family law attorney Charles Ullman, who supports the law.
Family law attorney Lee Rosen, though, opposes the law and says it's outdated.
"It comes from English common law when women were property of their husband, and so if someone stole your property, you had a claim against this person," Rosen said. "We're treating women like they're cows, pigs, farm animals, and if someone takes one of them away, we ought to get paid for it."
North Carolina is one of seven states with an alienation of affection law still on the books. Both husbands and wives have used it against their ex-spouses' alleged paramours.
To win a suit, a divorced spouse must prove that a person acted maliciously to contribute to or cause the loss of affection in a marriage.
A Wake County judge recently gave the largest alienation of affection award in state history to Carol Puryear, the ex-wife of Donald Puryear, who owns a trucking company in Raleigh. Betty Devin, who later married Donald Puryear, was accused of maliciously breaking up the marriage and was ordered to pay $30 million.
"It really was not about the money for Carol," her attorney Stephanie Jenkins said. "She just wanted her [Devin] to be held accountable. We really do feel she set her sights on him."
Donald Puryear and Devin did not return messages left by WRAL News.
Ullman argued that the law is valuable because it is the only legal deterrent against adultery that is left.
"Except for this law, there are really no consequences to having an affair with a married person," he said. "When people hear about these judgments, it serves as notice that marriage is important and to stay away if they have a wedding band."
Raleigh resident Cynthia Shackelford thought the same when, she says, another woman split up her 32-year marriage. Shackelford sued her ex-husband, Allan, but still hasn't been paid. She then sued Anne Lundquist, of Aurora, N.Y., for having an affair with her husband.
A jury awarded Shackelford $9 million, but because of appeals, she hasn't been paid anything.
That's the result of a majority of alienation of affection lawsuits: Even if they win, the jilted spouses rarely see a dime.
Despite those results, Shackelford said she stands by what she said when she won the lawsuit in March 2010.
"I needed to send a message that if there are other women out there that were entertaining the thought of going after somebody's husband, or vice-versa, to not do it," she said. "If somebody is still with the spouse, sleeping in the marital bed, leave them alone."
Sending a message to would-be homewreckers, though, isn't worth the cost to the public, Rosen argues.
"We (have) money, taxpayer money, being spent in a courtroom to pay a judge, to pay for the building and the court reporter and everybody else. Thousands of dollars (are) spent – for what? So that somebody could make a point?" he said.
"People feel upset when their marriage is unraveling. We, the taxpayers, shouldn't have to pay for them to feel better," he added.
The lawsuits also cause families pain and make divorces nastier, Rosen said.
"This is a nuclear bomb dropped on a family," he said. "When you work with families, you see the destruction these laws cause. You see parents who are unable to parent together because they've gotten embroiled in these lawsuits and it destroys their relationship."
Divorcees and other family law attorneys who represent them say it's a matter of feelings and accountability.
"They’re not out for the money," Ullman said. "They’re talking about validation of their marriage, they’re talking about validation of their wedding vows, and they’re talking about validation of this person being held accountable in some form or fashion for destroying their marriage."
"I'm glad I did it, I would do it all over again whether I see a dime or not," Shackelford said.
Rosen said he thinks the law should be scrapped altogether.
"It’s a law that’s time has come and gone, and it needs to be abolished," he said. "In these cases, the only winner is no one. The losers are us, the taxpayers."
Past attempts by some state lawmakers to repeal the alienation of affection law failed, and no bills to do so are before the ongoing session of the General Assembly.
The law was modified in 2009, stipulating that no one can be sued for actions taken after a couple has permanently and physically separated. A three-year statute of limitations was also placed on the law.