Why You Should Always Read the Small Print

Did you notice those restraining orders hiding on the back of your divorce paperwork? If not, I don’t blame you—they’re easy to miss.

Automatic Temporary Restraining Orders (ATROs) or Standard Family Law Restraining Orders (as they’re now called) are four mutual orders that automatically come into effect when filing for divorce or legal separation. They can be found on the reverse side of the Summons (FL-110), the form notifying an individual (“respondent”) of his/her partner’s (“petitioner”) desire to separate. The Summons is filed alongside the Petition for Dissolution (FL-100). Together, these forms legally mark the beginning of the end of a relationship.

Simply put, these orders protect children and marital assets. As soon as the petitioner files, the ATROs immediately bind him/her. As soon as the respondent is personally served, the ATROs bind him/her equally.

They last for the duration of dissolution proceedings, in order to prevent the following:

  1. Removing children from California,
    • This is in line with the “Best Interest Standard,” which directs all decisions about a child to be made with the child’s best possible welfare, safety, and health in mind. The courts want to ensure a child’s stability. This first order guards against abduction by demanding both parents either seek the co-parent’s permission or a court order before moving.
  2. Meddling with property,
    • This order ensures neither party utilizes property unfairly. It wards against the “transferring, encumbering, hypothecating, concealing, or in any way disposing of any property, real or personal, whether community, quasi-community, or separate.” In this sense, “property” refers not only to land, but also to money, tangible things of value, and the right to do what you will with them. As with the above, this order requires written notice or court permission. It demands one spouse give the other at least five-days’ notice before any extraordinary expenditures take place. The spouse must also be able to account for the spending in court.
    • Interesting exceptions: attorney’s fees and any transactions in the normal course of business. Property may be used to pay counsel, so long as the court and spouse are properly notified; and property may be used in a way that is consistent with either party’s spending habits (i.e. if a husband buys and sells diamonds every month for a living, he can continue to do so).
  3. Tampering with insurance policies, and
    • Since insurance has such a huge effect on individual lives (e.g. healthcare and financial security), it’s protected. This order forbids “cashing, borrowing against, canceling, transferring, disposing of, or changing the beneficiaries of any insurance or other coverage, including life, health, automobile, and disability held for the benefit of the parties and their child or children for whom support may be ordered.”
  4. Altering “nonprobate transfers.”
    • In its simplest terms, this order bans the creation or modification of a nonprobate transfer in a manner that affects the disposition of property subject to the transfer without the other party’s written consent or a court order. This does not apply to Wills, but it does affect trusts, for example.

These four small rules pack a strong punch. Although they’re on the reverse side of an already cramped document, do not ignore them! If they aren’t respected, family court can order restitution and lost profits. Sanctions and attorney fees are usually also a part of any enforcement action. In more extreme cases, contempt action may be filed, with the possibility of criminal prosecution to boot.

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