NH Law About... Heart Balm Actions

Introduction to... Heart Balm Actions

Posted April 10, 2015.

A heart balm (or heartbalm) action refers to several different lawsuits relating to courtship or marriage.  These common law suits (meaning they were developed by judges rather than legislatures) were: alienation of affections, breach of promise to marry, seduction, and criminal conversation (or conversion). These suits were prevalent many years ago, but now most states, including New Hampshire, have done away with them either by enacting "heart balm statutes" or through judicial decisions. States made this change because legislators guided by public policy and prevailing sentiment, no longer saw judicial involvement and money damages as being appropriate for what is perceived as only an ordinary broken heart.  Although heart balm actions no longer exist in New Hampshire, we are occasionally asked about them at the law library. 

The current law in New Hampshire relating to these topics is listed below. RSA 508:11, Breach of Contract to Marry says that a breach of contract to marry shall not constitute an injury or wrong recognized by law.  And RSA 460:2, Wife's Contracts says in part that no damages shall be allowed to either spouse in any action based on alienation of the affections of the other spouse.  In passing this law, the legislature noted that this previous ability to sue for alienation of affections was a “distasteful cause of action which is most frequently used as coercive pressure to gain an economic advantage in divorce actions."  In 1984, the New Hampshire case of Feldman v. Feldman abolished the common law action of criminal conversation, noting that no-fault divorce laws make the action of criminal conversation unnecessary.  And finally, the previous ability to sue for seduction was never robust in New Hampshire and seems to no longer be viable; there are only two New Hampshire cases on this topic, decided in 1846 and 1879.

The article "Farewell to Heart Balm Doctrines and the Tender Years Presumption, Hello to the Genderless Family," linked to below, defines the four heart balm doctrines of alienation of affections, criminal conversation, seduction, and breach of promise to marry and provides an interesting discussion of the history of these actions.  Family Law by Charles Douglas, also linked to below, discusses these topics briefly in sections 1.10 and 3.25, and includes discussion on another issue which arises in these cases: who keeps the gifts, including engagement rings, if the relationship fails. 

The law governing heart balm actions varies from state to state. There are general legal research materials available which discuss breach of promise to marry or alienation of affections, which are relevant to any jurisdictions which still allow these types of suits. However, the information in these materials is not relevant in New Hampshire, since these actions are prohibited by statute.

It's very common for non-lawyer researchers to ask us for help finding cases without ever having checked the statutes first. Inexperienced researchers could easily find the early NH heart balm cases without understanding that the legislature and the courts have made them invalid. This is why we always say in our legal research workshops that researchers should start by reading about the law (e.g., Douglas on Family Law) before they try to read the law. Douglas on Family Law tells most people everything they need to know about heart balm actions in New Hampshire without having to wrestle with cases and statutes.


Read about... Heart Balm Actions

WEBSITES

"Farewell to Heart Balm Doctrines and the Tender Years Presumption, Hello to the Genderless Family" in Journal of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (Vol. 24, 2012)  GO>

Link verified on: April 10, 2015


PRINT

Family law / by Charles G. Douglas. New Providence, N.J. : LexisNexis, 2014. 4th ed.   GO>

Link verified on: February 22, 2017

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Read the law about... Heart Balm Actions

NEW HAMPSHIRE STATUTES

RSA 460. Husband and Wife  GO>

Link verified on: February 22, 2017

RSA 508. Limitation of Actions   GO>

Link verified on: April 10, 2015

Find it in a Library ... New Hampshire Revised Statutes Annotated

Link verified on: February 22, 2017

Find the New Hampshire statutes in print at libraries throughout the state.   GO>

Learn About New Hampshire Statutes: New Hampshire statutes are the laws of the State of New Hampshire as enacted by the New Hampshire General Court. GO>
 

NEW HAMPSHIRE CASES

96 N.H. 177 (1950). Gikas v. Nicholis

Link verified on: February 18, 2016

"The main issue in this appeal is whether the donor of an engagement ring may recover it from the donee who terminates the engagement. [...] We prefer the view [...] which allows the recovery of an engagement ring where the engagement is terminated by the donee. [...] The miscellaneous gifts of personal property other than the engagement ring stand on a different footing. [...] While the plaintiff seeks their return neither his testimony nor the evidence takes them out of the category of absolute gifts. They were personal gratuities upon which the law imposes no condition of return and are more nearly akin to a Christmas present."   GO>

125 N.H. 102 (1984). Feldman v. Feldman

Link verified on: October 3, 2016

"This case requires us to determine whether the common-law tort action for criminal conversation should be abolished in this State. [...] [W]e hold that the tort of criminal conversation is no longer a valid cause of action in this State."   GO>

Find it in a Library ... New Hampshire Reports

Link verified on: February 22, 2017

Find the New Hampshire Reports in libraries throughout the state.   GO>

Learn About New Hampshire Cases: New Hampshire case law consists of the published opinions of the New Hampshire Supreme Court. GO>
 

FOR MORE HELP ...

New Hampshire Law Library

Link verified on: February 22, 2017

The state's only public law library. Call, email, or visit, we'll be happy to help.   GO>


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