Just mention the phrase “restraining order,” and the mental alarm bells start ringing. Those two words immediately conjure up images of emergency decrees taken to protect one person from another’s dangerously aggressive, or even violent, behavior, and for virtually everyone, just the idea of needing or being bound by one is quite disturbing.
However, in the world of legal divorce proceedings, there is something called an “Automatic Temporary Restraining Order” (or ATRO, for short) –and it means something else entirely.
Far from anything related to violence, an ATRO is actually considered a legal “nicety.” It is a court filing used to establish the rules you and your husband will follow during the divorce process (or legal separation, nullity or paternity action) with regard to your assets, insurance policies, designations of beneficiaries on wills and other legal documents, etc.
Essentially, an ATRO serves to “freeze” a couple’s financial status quo, preventing either party from making changes once a divorce action has been initiated . . . and until a settlement has been reached.
In addition to the financial accountability and stability an ATRO affords, it also helps ensure a measure of respect between divorcing spouses, perhaps alleviating some of the pervasive mistrust and anxiety that often colors so much of the divorce process. Once you’ve filed an ATRO with the Courts, you will be better able to focus on immediate issues being negotiated with your spouse, knowing that changes can’t be made to your financial situation behind the scenes and without your consent.
So, let’s discuss ATROs and their uses in more detail. Here are some of the key things I make sure my clients understand about them:
· An ATRO is a court order that disallows either spouse from altering certain aspects of their financial situation. An ATRO may be an integral part of the divorce action (in some states, it is right on the back of the actual divorce petition), or it may be a separate filing. In any case, it is a mutual court order that, generally, prohibits either spouse from such actions as:
o selling, transferring or borrowing against property
o borrowing against or selling insurance held for the other spouse
o modifying designated beneficiaries of insurance policies, retirement accounts, wills, etc.
o changing bank accounts
o destroying or hiding assets
Since an ATRO prohibits any of these changes (and certain large expenditures, as well), the marital financial picture is effectively “frozen” until a fair settlement can be reached.
· Despite the word “automatic” in its title, an ATRO may not automatically be part of your divorce petition. As with many aspects of divorce (i.e. division of debt, definition of separate and marital property), laws regarding filing and execution of ATROs vary from state to state (see more about this below). In some states, such as California, ATROs are automatically part of every divorce petition. However, if you live in a state that does not require an ATRO, such as New Jersey, your divorce attorney will have to request one from the Courts.
It is also important to know that your banks, brokerage firms and insurance companies will not “automatically” be notified that an ATRO has been filed –even if it directly affects your accounts and policies with them. It is your responsibility, not the Courts’, to let these companies know about the ATRO. Please don’t neglect this important step!