November 23, 2018

Divorce and the Automatic Orders

Whether expected or a total surprise, getting served with divorce papers represents a reality that stimulates a range of emotions.  A natural reaction to the resulting mixture of fear and anger, in different proportions for different people, is to take some action.  The spouse may, for example, seek control over assets, like bank accounts, or hide them to protect them from the other spouse or to punish the other spouse by doing things such as changing insurance to remove coverage for the other spouse or change an insurance beneficiary.  Often overlooked or misunderstood are a few pages of the divorce papers that are served which contain Automatic Orders that apply to both spouses when the case is started. 

They are designed to preserve the status quo and prohibit one spouse from taking unfair advantage of the other or causing harm to the other or to their children.  The Orders can only be changed by further court order.  Violation of the Automatic Orders, like violation of any other court order, can constitute contempt of court that exposes the violator to sanctions.

Here are some examples of how the Automatic Orders work:

  • If the spouses are living together, neither spouse can deprive the other from continued use of the home. It doesn’t matter which spouse holds title or is the tenant under the lease for the home.
  • Spouses living separately have to cooperate so that their children have contact with both parents.
  • Transferring, selling or disposing of property of almost any kind, whether jointly or individually owned, other than in the ordinary course or for customary and usual household debts, is also prohibited. It is a violation to give assets to another to hold.
  • One spouse can’t run up unreasonable debt, whether joint or individual. While “unreasonable” isn’t specifically defined, clearly charging or drawing down on a home equity credit line to pay for a vacation with a paramour is a violation.
  • Spouses must continue existing insurance: car, homeowner, medical, dental and life policies; and certainly can’t cancel or change them or their beneficiaries.

The Automatic Orders don’t provide complete protection.  The reality is that dishonest and frightened people violate court orders.  Others take actions before the divorce case starts that would be prohibited by the Automatic Orders after it is started.  The Automatic Orders apply only to the divorcing couple.  They don’t require, prohibit or punish third parties like banks, credit card companies, insurance providers, family members or anyone else from doing anything.

Considering divorce or already divorcing?  It’s never too early to educate yourself about the Automatic Orders.  You might consider a consultation with a lawyer about how the Automatic Orders impact your particular situation and perhaps to explore options to supplement them.

This post first appeared in the November 22, 2018 edition of The Cheshire Citizen, an RJ Media Group publication.


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