The term adultery refers to sexual relations between a married person and a person who is not his or her spouse. In other words, it is having sex with someone other than your spouse. Adultery has been viewed as both socially and spiritually throughout history, and is mentioned many times in the Bible. In a modern legal sense, adultery is not only the cause of many divorces, but may provide the legal grounds for divorce. To explore this concept, consider the following adultery definition.

Definition of Adultery


  1. Sex between a married person and someone other than his or her spouse.
  2. Extramarital sex.


1000-500 B.C.  Latin  adulterāre  (to debauch, to corrupt)

What is Adultery

Sex outside legal marriage, referred to as adultery, has been considered a grievous wrong on religious, moral, social, and legal grounds since time immemorial. Historically, while adultery has been considered illegal in almost every culture, it has not always, nor in all cultures, been a criminal offense. Adultery seems to have been defined, in biblical times, as illicit intercourse between a man and a married, or betrothed, woman. Sex between two unmarried people is called “fornication.”

History of Adultery

Throughout history, and across cultures, adultery has been considered a serious sin, which often led to punishment doled out by the church, and sometimes the government. In many ancient cultures, however, such laws applied to the women – with wives having sex outside marriage being punished in various ways, while the men were free to have sexual relations with slaves, servants, and unmarried women. In pre-Christian times, women accused of adultery were punished in a variety of ways, from public shunning, to stoning, to being put to death.

Moving forward to the Middle Ages, adultery was deemed legally wrong, though it was generally left to the churches to punish. In courts created by the church for the purpose of enforcing good moral values, accusations of adultery still garnered punishments as harsh as death in many places. In Europe, throughout the 15th through 18th centuries, adulterous women who were not given such a harsh penalty as death were commonly put out of the home by their husbands. In such cases, they lost, not only their home and support, but all rights to their children.

Is Adultery Illegal

All issues of family law, including marriage, divorce, and adultery, are governed by each state separately. While adultery remains a ground for divorce in at-fault states, it is not a criminal offense in most states. The rationales behind making adultery illegal were originally to preserve the institution of marriage, prevent illegitimate children, prevent disease, and safeguard the moral values of the community.

Although these goals, to some extent, have become outdated, a number of states still have adultery statutes on the books, with the acts ranging from a minor-level misdemeanor, to a felony.

State Level of Crime Punishment
Arizona Class 3 misdemeanor · Maximum of 30 days in jail
Florida Second degree misdemeanor · Maximum of 60 days in jail
Georgia Misdemeanor · Fine of not more than $1,000

· County jail for not more than 1 year

· Probation

Idaho Felony · Fine of not less than $1,000

· County jail for not less than 3 months, and not more than 1 year

· State prison for not more than 3 years

Illinois Class A misdemeanor · County jail for not more than 1 year

· Fine of not more than $500

Kansas Class C misdemeanor · Maximum of 30 days in jail
Massachusetts Felony · State prison for not more than 3 years

· County jail for not more than 2 years

· Fine of not more than $2,500

Michigan Felony · County jail for not more than 1 year
Minnesota criminal offense · Fine of not more than $3,000

· County jail for not more than 1 year

Mississippi criminal offense · Fine of not more than $500

· County jail for not more than 6 months

New York Class B misdemeanor · County jail for not more than 3 months
North Carolina Class 2 misdemeanor · County jail for not more than 60 days
Oklahoma Felony · State prison for not more than 5 years

· Fine of not more than $500

South Carolina criminal offense · Fine of not less than $100, and not more $500

· County jail for not less than 6 months, and not more than 1 year

Utah Class B misdemeanor · Fine of not more than $1,000

· County jail for not more than 6 months

Wisconsin Class I felony · State prison for not more than 3 1/2 years

· Fine of not more than $10,000

Criminal Proceedings for Adultery

In many jurisdictions in which adultery is considered a crime, the initiating of criminal proceedings for adultery can only be done by the spouse of the accused person. In other words, the district attorney’s office, or other prosecuting body, does not go around looking for cheaters to charge with this crime. In other jurisdictions, however, there are laws prohibiting people from testifying against their spouses. In such states, the wronged spouse may bring a complaint against the lover of the adulterous spouse.

Example of Adultery Complaint

Ben discovers that his wife Louise has been having an affair with a co-worker for two years. He is furious. After filing for divorce, he goes to the District Attorney’s office to see if he can press criminal charges for his wife’s adultery. In this example of adultery, the state does not allow a Ben to testify against his spouse, but he can file a civil lawsuit against her lover.

Adultery in Divorce Proceedings

While many states have adopted a no-fault stance to divorce, others still allow fault divorces, in which one spouse blames the other for the demise of the relationship. In such cases, if the fault is proven, the wronged spouse may not only be granted the divorce, but may receive a larger portion of the marital assets. In a fault divorce state, there are a number of issues that may be cited as grounds for divorce, of which adultery is just one, though it is the most common.

Adultery in divorce proceedings historically treated women much worse than men. In fact, in other countries, a woman could be put to death for committing adultery, while the same behavior committed by the husband would likely not even be mentioned. In the modern U.S. legal system, adultery in divorce proceedings carries the same weight for either spouse, and certainly never involves death.

To gain the advantage of adultery in divorce proceedings, the accusing spouse must prove to the court that the other spouse was cheating. This requires the presentation of evidence that convinces the court that it is more likely than not that the adultery was occurring. Should one spouse be found to be cheating, the wronged spouse may be relieved of the obligation to pay spousal support, regardless of financial need.

The Effect of Adultery on Child Support

Child support is not a matter of the parents’ behavior, however, but an obligation of both parents to care and provide for the children. Child support is never affected by adultery or other fault in the divorce.

Adultery Statistics

While infidelity is a deeply personal issue for the people involved, news and accusations of cheating can be found at nearly every supermarket check stand, news outlet, and website. This metaphorical shouting from the rooftops of adultery and other forms of cheating have made it possible to collect some rather startling adultery statistics.

  • Women cheat primarily for the emotional connection; Men cheat primarily for sex
  • 96% of Americans feel adultery is morally wrong, though only about 60% would like to see it punished as a crime
  • 22% of married men have committed adultery at some point in their lives, compared to 14% of married women
  • 36% of such affairs are with co-workers
  • 30% of women knew of their spouse’s infidelity, compared to 46% of men
  • 17% of all divorces in the U.S. follow adultery committed by one of the spouses
  • 85% of women who suspect their spouse is cheating on them are correct, compared to only 50% of men
  • Those engaged in ongoing affairs spend, on average, $400 per month financing their liaisons

Adultery Example in $9 Million Lawsuit

In November, 2007, a North Carolina woman filed a civil lawsuit against the woman with whom her husband had committed adultery. In the original complaint, spurned wife Cynthia Shackelford accused Anne Lundquist of having had an adulterous affair with her husband of 33 years, Allan. Cynthia accused Anne of the civil torts of alienation of affection and criminal conversation, as well as intentional infliction of emotional distress. She asked that the court award her $5 million in compensatory damages, and another $4 million in punitive damages.

Although Anne did not file a response to the lawsuit, she did send a letter requesting additional time in which to respond. She never followed through, and never hired an attorney. She sent occasional letters to the court clerk, and the matter did not go to trial until nearly more than two years later. When the jury trial was held in December, 2009, Anne didn’t show up. After Cynthia presented her case and evidence, the jury awarded her $9 million.

Although Anne failed to participate in the official court proceedings over the course of four years, she quickly retained an attorney after the jury saddled her with a $9 million judgment. She filed a motion that the verdict be overturned, and that she be granted a new trial. The trial court denied her motion, and she appealed. The appeal claimed that the laws regarding alienation of affection and criminal conversation were unconstitutional, and therefore the trial court had no jurisdiction to award damages. However, her attorney failed to provide the appellate court with any citation or case precedent to further that claim.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Alienation of Affection – The wrongful, willful, or malicious act of interfering with the relationship between a husband and wife.
  • Compensatory Damages – An award of money in compensation for actual economic loss, property damage, or injury, not including punitive damages.
  • Criminal Conversation – Adultery, usually involving the seduction of another person’s spouse.
  • Punitive Damages – Money awarded in cases where the defendant’s actions in regard to the case are malicious, or so reckless as to give a reasonable person pause. Punitive damages are ordered for the purpose of punishing the wrongdoer for outrageous misconduct in a civil matter.