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Adultery and Circumstantial Evidence

Huffman v. Huffman, 2022 NCCOA 309 – NC: Court of Appeals 2022

In this day of dating apps, social media, and instant gratification, temptations for the unfaithful are everywhere. But so are ways to cover your tracks: it’s easier to get and delete a text message than intercept a letter, easier to lie about a location when phones are tied to specific places.

This leaves many spouses sure that something is going on, but unable to find definitive proof. Maybe he’s on his phone with a “friend” all the time, maybe he disappears at odd hours, maybe there’s a suspicious dinner for two on a credit card. The NC Court of Appeals has decided that when it comes to proving marital misconduct in court, these suspicious behaviors may be enough.

Circumstantial Evidence Can Be Enough

In Huffman v. Huffman, a husband brought a case before the Court asking if a trial court could find that marital misconduct had occurred based on circumstantial evidence. The Court found that circumstantial evidence could be enough to prove that an affair had taken place in an equitable distribution case.

In this case, the parties married in 1991 and separated in 2016 due to domestic violence and adultery committed by the husband. At trial, the husband’s phone records showed that he called another woman 116 times in one month and texted her constantly. The husband had been withdrawing from the wife and leaving her alone on weekends, despite her major health issues.

When asked about the relationship, the husband denied that he was having an affair but invoked the 5th Amendment about having a romantic relationship with the woman. The trial court found that the husband had “involved himself in a questionable relationship with another lady,” and granted the plaintiff wife alimony for 18 months.

Are the Findings of Facts Supported by Competent Evidence?

The Court reviewed this issue at an abuse of discretion standard – whether the findings of facts are supported by competent evidence, or evidence that “a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support the finding.”[1] It is true that there is no smoking gun in this case, but when there’s enough circumstantial evidence, it’s “as competent as positive evidence to prove a fact.”[2] In fact, given the lengths many people go to when hiding an affair, “[a]dultery is nearly always proved by circumstantial evidence.”[3] In this situation, there was evidence of an unreasonable number of phone calls to another woman and weekends away from the ill wife.

Since this was a civil case, the court can also assume that the husband’s invocation of the 5th amendment meant that telling the true would have hurt his case. All of these things, taken together, are enough for a reasonable person to believe that the husband had an affair, so the Court upheld the original finding.

An Unfaithful Spouse Can Be Held Accountable in Court

Despite their best efforts to hide their misconduct, if there is enough circumstantial evidence, an unfaithful spouse can still be held accountable for their affair in court.

[1] Watson v. Watson, 261 N.C. App. 94, 97, 819 S.E.2d 595, 598 (2018)

[2] Planters Nat. Bank & Trust Co. of Rocky Mount v. Atlantic Coast Line R. Co., 208 N.C. 574, 576, 181 S.E. 635, 636 (1935).

[3] In re Estate of Trogdon, 330 N.C. 143, 148, 409 S.E.2d 897, 900 (1991).