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Automatic Order Entered Upon Filing Divorce

by Charles F. Vuotto, Jr.

 I believe it is time for an automatic standard order incorporating various  ‘common sense’ restraints to be entered in every divorce action at the very inception of the case. Such an initial order would be automatically generated by the court when the complaint for divorce is filed. 

At least 30 percent of states[1] across the United States already have such automatic orders in place.  The restraints included in these orders become binding upon the plaintiff when the complaint for divorce is filed, and binding upon the defendant when the complaint is served.  Most states that have such automatic orders have an accompanying statute, which sets forth specifically what is to be included in  the order.[2]      

While these orders vary from state to state, they all  place restraints on the parties from transferring, encumbering, concealing or disposing of assets, with almost all making exceptions for the ‘necessities of life’ or ‘in the ordinary course of business.’  A few of the states even make exceptions for payment of reasonable attorney’s fees in connection with the divorce action.[3]

The next most common restraints restrict the removal of a minor child from the jurisdiction, canceling/modifying any insurance policy (including medical, dental, disability, life, automobile, and homeowners), changing the beneficiary on a life insurance policy, incurring unreasonable debts, and threatening or harassing the other party and/or the children.[4]

Oklahoma, the state with the most comprehensive standard order, also includes restraints on opening/diverting mail addressed to the other party; signing the other party’s name to any negotiable instrument (including tax refunds); and disrupting or withdrawing their children from any educational facility, program, or day care where their children have historically been enrolled.[5] Interestingly, Tennessee includes restraints on making disparaging comments to the other’s employer and hiding, destroying or spoiling, in whole or in part, any evidence that is electronically stored on computer hard drives or any other memory storage devices.[6]  In this digital age, such a provision is critical.

States such as Idaho and Nevada also allow for such automatic orders; however,  they vary from county to county within the state. While it is obvious that courts have the equitable power to grant such temporary preliminary injunctions sua sponte or on motion from a litigant, states such as Georgia,[7] Virginia[8], and Washington[9] have statutes that  specifically permit litigants to request such reliefs viapendente lite motions or simultaneously with the filing of the complaint.        

I suggest New Jersey follow suit and implement an automatic standard order upon the filing of each complaint for divorce.  Such an order could be ”titled Coepi Ordo” (Latin for initial order).  Taking from the forms of many different states, I have compiled a comprehensive list of provisions that can be included in New Jersey’s standard order as follows:


Coepi Ordo


A.     In all actions for dissolution of marriage or civil union, divorce from bed and board or annulment, the clerk of the court shall issue a preliminary injunction restraining the parties from:


1.                  Selling, encumbering (except for the filing of a lis pendens), converting, liquidating, reinvesting (except for automatic reinvestment provisions in brokerage accounts in place prior to the initiation of the action), transferring, pledging, secreting, wasting, hypothecating, concealing, depleting or otherwise dissipating any assets (including, but not limited to, real estate, personal property, bank accounts, stocks, mutual funds, retirement accounts, vehicles) in which either party has a legal or beneficial interest, including any assets owned through a business or other entity in which he or she has an interest, without the written consent of the other party or an order of the court, except in the ordinary course of business, for the necessities of life or for reasonable attorney’s fees in connection with this action.  If assets are used in the permissible aforementioned ways, the spouse doing so must provide an accounting within 14 days. 


2.                  Discontinuing payment of all reoccurring personal and household expenses. All personal and/or household bills, including all utilities, shall continue to be paid in the same manner and from the same source as had been paid immediately prior to the filing of the complaint for divorce.


3.                  Canceling, modifying, encumbering, discontinuing, allowing the policy to lapse for nonpayment of premiums or changing the beneficiary status or in any way altering any insurance policy existing as of the date of the filing of the complaint for divorce including but not limited to life, medical, dental, homeowners, automobile, disability or any other form of coverage.  Both parties shall cooperate as necessary in the filing and processing of claims.    


4.                  Except for the payment of reasonable professional fees incident to the action, incurring any unreasonable debts hereafter, including but not limited to, borrowing against any credit line secured by the family residence, further encumbering any assets or unreasonably using credit cards or cash advances against credit cards in which the other party is or may liable, without the prior written consent of the other party or an order of the court. 


5.                  Removing a minor child (defined as changing a child’s residence) of the parties, beyond the jurisdiction of the state of New Jersey or more than 25 miles from the marital residence, without the prior written consent of the other party or an order of the court, hiding or secreting their child(ren) from the other party, and disrupting or withdrawing the child(ren) from an educational facility, program or day care where the child(ren) have historically been enrolled.


6.                  Threatening, harassing, or disturbing the peace of the other party or of the child(ren) of the marriage or making disparaging remarks about the other to or in the presence of any child(ren) of the parties or to either party’s employer. 


7.                  Hiding, destroying or spoiling, in whole or in part, any personal or business records, including those located in the home, a business office, place of employment or otherwise and including all personal or business records stored electronically on computer hard drives or other memory storage devices. 


8.                  Intentionally or knowingly damaging or destroying the tangible property belonging to both or either of the parties including, but not limited to, any document that represents or embodies anything of value.


9.                  Opening or diverting mail addressed to the other party.


10.              Signing or endorsing the other party’s name on any negotiable instrument, check, or draft, such as tax refunds, insurance payments, and dividends, or attempting to negotiate any negotiable instruments payable to either party without the personal signature of the other party.


11.              If the parties are living together on the date of service of this order, restraining either party from denying the other party use of the current primary residence of the parties, whether it be owned or rented property, without court order. This provision shall not apply if there is a prior, contradictory court order.


12.              If the parties share a child or children, requiring that a party vacating the family residence (consistent with the other terms hereof) shall notify the other party or the other party’s attorney, in writing, within  48 hours of such move, of an address where the relocated party can receive communication. This provision shall not apply if there is a prior, contradictory court order


13.              If the parents of minor child(ren) live apart during this dissolution proceeding, requiring that they shall assist their child(ren) in having contact with both parties, which is consistent with the habits of the family, personally, by telephone, and in writing unless there is a prior, contradictory court order.


B.     This automatic restraining order shall be effective with regard to the plaintiff upon the filing of the complaint and with regard to the defendant upon service of the summons and complaint with a copy of this order.  The plaintiff shall certify that he or she has not taken action contrary to the above restraints for a period of 60 days prior to the filing of the complaint and if so, explain in detail what action has been taken.                       


C.     Either party may file an appropriate application with this court to modify any of the proceeding terms upon good cause in accordance with the law of this state.  However, until such time as such an application is filed and ruled upon, the above provisions shall continue in full force and effect during the pendency of this action.


D.      This restraining order is automatically vacated upon the entry of a judgment of divorce. 


            It is respectfully submitted that most if not all of these provisions (in one form or another) are included in almost every initialpendente lite application filed in a divorce action. In fact, these terms typically constitute the majority of relief initially sought by litigants. If these terms became standard and entered automatically upon the inception of the case, it would have a substantial impact in reducing motion practice, and therefore alleviate the court’s docket. No party will be prejudiced by these initial orders since it is proposed that the initial order simply maintain the status quo and expressly states that its terms may be modified upon an application by either party upon a showing of good cause.


[1] Such states include: Alaska (Alaska Civil Rule 65(e), Arizona (Ariz. Rev. Stat. §25-315(A), California (Cal. Fam. Code §2040), Colorado (Colo. Rev. Stat. §14-10-107), Connecticut (www.jud2.ct.gov Form JD-FM-158 Rev. 9/07), Delaware (Del. Code Tit. 13 §1509), Maine (Me. Rev. Stat. Ann tit. 19A . §903), Massachusetts (Supp. Probate Court Rule 411),  New York (D.R.L. §236(B)(2)(b), North Dakota (N.D.R.Ct. 8.4), Oklahoma (Okla. Stat. Ann. §43-110), Oregon (Or. Rev. Stat. 107.093), Rhode Island (R.I. Gen .Laws §15-5-14.1), South Dakota (S.D. Codified Laws §25-4-33.1) and Tennessee (Tenn. Code Ann.  §36-4-106(d)).

[2] See endnote 1, supra.

[3] Arizona, California, Connecticut, New York, North Dakota, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Oregon and Rhode Island.

[4] Of the 15 states referenced above, 12 have restraints on changing insurance policies, 11 have restraints on removing a minor child, 10 have restraints on changing beneficiaries on life insurance policies, eight have restraints on threatening/harassing the other party and/or the children and four have restraints on incurring debts.

[5] Okla. Stat. Ann. §43-110.

[6] Tenn. Code Ann.  §36-4-106(d).

[7] Ga. Code Ann. §19-1-1.

[8] Va. Code §20-103.

[9] RCW 26.09.060.


The author wishes to thank Lauren E. Koster, an associate with Tonneman, Vuotto & Enis, LLC, for her assistance with this column.

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