In a recent Hudson County case (Smith v. Smith, dec’d December 1, 2008) a father sued his ex-wife and her parents for conduct which he alleged alienated him from his children. The ex-wife and her parents defended, in part, on the basis of the "Heart Balm Act" which bans actions for "alienation of affection" in NJ.
An earlier case in Morris County had dismissed a claim similar to Mr. Smith’s on the basis that the Heart Balm Act was applicable. The Morris County Court found that the father’s claims for the alienation of his children were prohibited under the Heart Balm Act.
However, the Hudson County Court held that Mr. Smith’s claims were not for alienation, but were, instead, for the intentional or negligent infliction of emotional distress.
It is important to note that the Hudson County Court did NOT find that Mr. Smith had a valid or compensable claim. It merely refused to grant the Motions to Dismiss filed by the ex wife and her parents and allowed the matter to proceed toward trial.
The fact that we now have two diametrically opposing decision from 2 Trial Courts in Morris and Hudson Counties is almost certainly a precursor for a future ruling on the issue by a New Jersey Appellate Court.
Although the Morris or Hudson County cases are interesting, neither are binding on other Trial Courts and the rights of divorced or estranged parents will have to await binding determination by an eventual Appellate Court decision.
However, at least a warning bell has been sounded. Parents who behave in ways which alienate the other parent from their children are not only doing their children a great disservice, but may now find themselves financially accountable for their conduct.