Automatic Orders and Contempt in Divorce Actions

When the Domestic Relations Law was amended in 2009, it included additional requirements related to commencement of divorce actions.  Specifically, DRL §236(B)(2)(b) and 22 N.Y.C.R.R. §202.16-a included a requirement for the so-called automatic orders. Until recently, there was still a question of whether the automatic orders could be enforced using court’s contempt power since automatic orders are not signed by a judge but, instead, are signed by a divorce attorney.

In P.S. v. R.O., 2011 N.Y. Slip. Op. 21031 (Sup.Ct. New York Co. 2010), the court specifically addressed this issue.  The court held that violation of automatic orders can subject a party to civil contempt.

The wife commenced divorce on October 13, 2010, by filing summons with notice and notice of automatic orders setting forth the statutory automatic orders verbatim, which were served on husband. Parties owned joint vacation home in Vermont and had joint bank account. Upon separating, parties continued to deposit rental income from Vermont home into joint account to pay for Vermont home expenses, until December 15, 2010, when rental broker deposited $6,000 into joint account and wife transferred fund into her sole bank account. On January 4, 2011, wife transferred those funds back into joint account. Husband moved to hold wife in contempt, alleging that since May 2009, he has used funds in joint account to pay for Vermont home expenses. Wife contended that she transferred such funds out of account because she feared husband would not spend funds on Vermont home and dissipate such asset.

In addressing these issues, the court stated that to establish civil contempt, moving party must demonstrate by clear and convincing evidence that party charged with contempt violated clear and unequivocal court mandate which prejudiced moving party.

In analyzing whether the automatic orders amounted to a clear and unequivocal court mandate, the court reviewed the Court Rules, 22 N.Y.C.R.R. §202.16-a, which requires service of a copy of the “automatic orders” on defendant, and contains language identical to that found in DRL §236(B)(2)(b). The Court Rules are promulgated by the Chief Administrator of the Courts on behalf of the Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals under the authority vested in them by Judiciary Law Sections 211(1)(b) and 212(2)(b), and by Article Six, Section 30, of the New York State Constitution, to adopt rules to regulate practice and procedure in the courts. Thus, the court found that the Court Rules constitute lawful mandates of the court. It further found that the legislative history of Domestic Relations Law §236(B)(2)(b) makes clear that the legislature intended that a violation of the automatic orders would be redressed by the same remedies available for violations of any order signed by a judge.

Accordingly, the court found that civil contempt is available as a remedy for violation of the automatic orders, provided that the plaintiff has served the defendant with adequate notice of the automatic orders, as has been done in this case. However, the court in P.S. found that the wife did not violate the orders, or met the other requirements for imposition of contempt.

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