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Financial Restraining Orders: How ATROs Affect California Divorce

Restraining orders aren’t generally considered to be good things. The term summons to mind physical abuse and literal danger, after all. However, not every restraining order is created equally. In California, specific restraining orders are automatic and occur without either party needing to petition the court. These special restraining orders are called Automatic Temporary Restraining Orders (ATROs), and they immediately go into place when one spouse serves the other a summons for divorce.

An ATRO isn’t designed to protect one party from a dangerous or abusive partner. Instead, it’s intended to act as a safeguard for both parties in a divorce. The California court system understands that divorce is a stressful, emotional time, and the institution of these automatic temporary restraining orders is intended to help prevent either party from doing anything rash.

What Is an ATRO

During a divorce, some people find it all too tempting to try to “win” the process. Since California is a community property state, the divorce and separation process involves dividing marital assets equally. If one partner is emotionally overwhelmed, they may try to get revenge or “win” the process by removing assets from joint accounts. ATROs are designed to prevent this from happening.

In essence, an ATRO acts as a freeze on many financial and legal actions during significant family law events. An ATRO goes into effect whenever one party serves the other any of the following:

  • A summons of dissolution (divorce)
  • A summons of legal separation
  • A summons of nullity (annulment)
  • A summons of paternity action

The ATRO is found on the reverse side of the summons paperwork. Both the summons and the ATRO go into effect simultaneously. The result is that as soon as the divorce process officially begins, neither partner can affect their combined financial status.

The Difference Between an ATRO and a Standard Restraining Order

Most restraining orders (also called “protective” orders) require that one person prove that the other has committed some kind of wrongdoing. These orders are typically unilateral, protecting the filer and restraining the other party. They can restrict the restrained person from contacting or even coming near the protected person.

On the other hand, ATROs are much less restrictive. An ATRO is mutual, so both parties face the same restrictions. No one has to prove any wrongdoing – simply serving a summons a family law action such as divorce or separation is enough to trigger it. Finally, both parties are allowed to contact each other and even live in the same place. All an ATRO restricts is the partners’ abilities to change the financial status quo of the partnership.

How ATROs Work

An Automatic Temporary Restraining Order does several things at once. First, it acts as a financial freeze. Once a summons for dissolution has been served, neither party can do things like:

  • Creating or changing bank accounts or account access
  • Changing or taking out new insurance policies on either partner
  • Removing anyone from any insurance coverage
  • Destroying or hiding any asset
  • Taking out loans on any asset that may be community property

However, both partners still need to take care of their daily lives during the divorce process. As a result, ATROs do not bar either partner from actions like:

  • Paying attorney fees
  • Paying rent or mortgages
  • Paying off communal debts
  • Covering day-to-day living expenses

The goal of ATROs is to avoid changing the financial playing field for a separating couple. That means preventing large changes, but everyday expenses are still permitted. As soon as the final judgment has been entered, the ATRO is no longer in effect. Both parties can abide by that judgment instead.

There’s one other significant rule that ATROs put in place for divorcing couples with children. As soon as an ATRO goes into place, neither parent can remove their shared children from the state or get them a passport without written permission from the other parent. Custody is just as likely to become confusing or contentious as the division of assets in many separations. The ATRO helps protect both parties’ parental rights and also helps keep the children safe.

Penalties for Violating an ATRO

As with all court orders, there are penalties for violating an ATRO. Penalties can include significant fines, especially if it appears that the violation was purposeful. Since an ATRO is a legal court order, violating one can also result in charges of contempt of court. It’s possible to spend time behind bars if a contempt of court charge is upheld. While it’s best to follow the rules of the ATRO for their own sake, these penalties are important motivation to respect the law.

The Effect of ATROs on Divorcing Couples

Dividing community property is complicated in even the most clear-cut divorce. When two people have spent years building a life together, there are plenty of assets to which they both have equal claim. California law specifies that the combined marital estate should be split 50/50 between the parties. To do that, marital property must be clearly defined.

Whether or not it’s intentional, moving marital assets around during the divorce process obscures the financial situation. It’s only natural for a divorcing person to want to create a new bank account. The problem is that moving assets from joint accounts into a solely-owned account appears like an attempt to hide those assets. The goal of ATROs is to help keep the divorce as clean and as simple as possible for everyone involved.

ATROs Offer Assurance

Most ATROs simply act as safeguards, helping keep both parties from accidentally confusing their financial or custodial situation. That’s why it kicks in immediately. ATROs preserve the financial status of a marriage at the moment the divorce process begins. Whether you are filing for divorce or have been served a summons of dissolution, the ATRO protects you equally. If you have any questions about how an ATRO is affecting or will affect your financial situation, don’t hesitate to reach out to a qualified divorce attorney today.