NH Law About... Heart Balm Actions

Introduction to... Heart Balm Actions

Updated February 23, 2017.

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. 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. 

Please remember that this guide is for information purposes only and is not comprehensive. It is intended as a starting point for research, to illustrate the various sources of the law, and to provide guidance in their use. NH Law About ... is not a substitute for the services of an attorney.  


Read about... Heart Balm Actions

WEBSITES

Laura Belleau, Farewell to Heart Balm Doctrines and the Tender Years Presumption, Hello to the Genderless Family, 24 J. Am. Acad. Matrim. Law. 365 (2012)

Link verified on: February 23, 2017

At one time,marital common law rules borrowed from English law (which came to be known as “heart balm” doctrines) protected the rights one spouse had for the other to remain faithful to the marriage, or of potential spouses duped into unlawful intercourse or false marriage proposals.   GO>

Kyle Graham, Why Torts Die, 35 Fla. St. U. L. Rev. 359, 364 (2008)

Link verified on: February 23, 2017

Tort plaintiffs today can recover for far more affronts than their ancestors ever dreamed possible. Across our nation, courts and legislatures seem to place an ever-broadening array of causes of action in the hands of plaintiffs and their attorneys. But it would be a mistake to conclude from this overall expansion of tort liability that, once born, torts never die. On the contrary, just as animal species go extinct, buildings collapse, and stars implode into black holes, certain torts have already vanished, and others will disappear in the future. The heartbalm or amatory torts all involve derailed intimate relationships. An alienation of affections claim arises when a defendant intentionally interferes with a marriage, straining relations between husband and wife. Criminal conversation occurs when the defendant engages in sexual intercourse with a married person. The plaintiff in a breach of promise to marry suit attacks a failure to follow through with an accepted promise of marriage. Seduction, the fourth and final heartbalm tort, involves at least one act of intercourse between the defendant and an unmarried woman, accomplished by way of artifices and persuasions.   GO>


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

Link verified on: March 23, 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 23, 2017

RSA 508. Limitation of Actions   GO>

Link verified on: February 23, 2017

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

Link verified on: March 24, 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

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

Link verified on: February 23, 2017

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: March 24, 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: March 24, 2017

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


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