A temporary restraining order (TRO) is a court order that's aimed at preventing someone from taking particular actions—but only for a certain amount of time. Most people associate TROs with domestic violence. However, these temporary orders may also address dangerous situations outside of your family—such as stalking or sexual violence. And some TROs have nothing to do with violence or threats, such as the orders meant to maintain the status quo in a couple's finances while a divorce case is ongoing. Here's an overview of the common types of TROs and how they work.
Under state law, people who are in danger of violence or abuse from a family member may request a court order meant to stop the abuse and protect the person asking for the order (usually known as the "applicant" or "petitioner"). Depending on the state, these orders go by different names, including domestic (or family) violence protective orders, injunctions for protection against domestic violence, or orders of protection.
If it appears to be an urgent situation, the judge may issue a temporary order that takes effect immediately but lasts only for a certain period of time. These TROs are sometimes called "ex parte" orders—a legal term for orders that a judge issues based only on the information in the request, without hearing from the person who's the subject of the order (the "defendant" or "respondent").
Historically, domestic violence TROs were limited to petitioners who are in danger of abuse from close relatives, including current and former spouses. But some states include more relatives than others. Also, many states have expanded the definition of domestic violence to include abuse between people in relationships beyond traditional families, such as:
If you're being endangered or intimidated by someone who doesn't fit in your state's definition of domestic or family abuse, you still might be able to get a TRO under other state laws (more on that below).
Even if you're in a qualifying relationship with your abuser, your ability to get a TRO in your situation will depend on how your state defines abuse. In some states, your abuser must have already committed a crime against you like assault, stalking, threats of immediate violence, or criminal property damage. Other states allow protective orders in a wider range of situations. In California, for instance, abuse includes behaviors like making annoying phone calls, impersonating the victim online, and destroying the victim's "mental or emotional calm." (Cal. Fam. Code §§ 6203, 6320 (2022).)
If you're dealing with abuse or threats of violence in a situation that doesn't involve family, household members, or other intimates, you might still be able to get a TRO. Some states have special laws dealing with TROs to prevent:
As with domestic violence TROs, you may use a simplified procedure—when it's allowed in your state—to apply for one of these orders (more on that below).
In the context of family matters, there's another type of TRO that's common in divorces. Although they might also address potential abuse, these TROs are more typically aimed at maintaining the status quo in a couple's finances and access to their children while the divorce case is ongoing. For instance, TROs issued in divorces often prohibit either spouse from:
The procedure for getting a TRO depends on the circumstances and the law in your state.
In domestic violence cases, you can apply for a TRO directly with the court clerk (usually at the Family Court). You'll need to fill out some forms. Most state courts have self-help centers that will provide information and assistance with the process. Some states, like California, provide the application forms and instructions online. Generally, you'll need to give details about when the respondent has hurt or threatened you, as well as the specific orders you're requesting. .
Of course, you should call 911 if you're in immediate danger. After officers arrive, they might contact a judge and request an order for you. Otherwise, you might need to go to the court yourself once the police have defused the situation, taken the abuser into custody, or simply made sure you could leave. You can also call the police if you need an immediate order when the courts are closed, even if your abuser isn't with you at the time (for instance, when you're receiving threats of immediate violence over the phone). After investigating, officers will probably contact an on-call judge to request an order. The judge might want to talk with you before deciding whether to grant the request.
The judge who reviews your request will decide if a temporary order is necessary to protect your safety under the standards in your state and based on the information you've provided. For instance, judges in Texas will issue temporary ex parte protective orders if they find that there's a "clear and present danger of family violence," as that is defined under state law. (Tex. Fam. Code §§ 71.004, 83.001 (2022).)
If the judge decides that your situation doesn't meet the requirements for a TRO, you may still be able to get a protective order. But you'll have to wait for a hearing, and the respondent will have the right to be there and argue against the order.
In states with specific laws that allow protective orders in some non-domestic violence situations, like stalking and sexual violence, you should be able to apply under a similar, simplified procedure. However, the standards for issuing these orders are usually stricter than in cases of domestic abuse.
With some types of TROs, the victim or potential victim doesn't actually apply for the order. For instance, employers may apply for workplace violence restraining orders to protect an employee from violence or threats at the workplace. And in some states, law enforcement or certain school employees may apply for a restraining order to prevent gun violence.
In situations that don't involve domestic violence and aren't covered by a special law in your state, the standard procedure is to file an Order to Show Cause (OSC) with the court and seek a TRO as part of your application. An OSC is way of getting your request in front of a judge relatively quickly. But you should know that preparing and filing an OSC ordinarily requires knowledge of court rules and regulations, so you'll very likely need to get help from a lawyer.
In some states, as soon as one spouses files the initial divorce papers and serves them on the other spouse, standard TROs dealing with finances and related matters are automatically effective. These "ATROs" are usually spelled out in the divorce petition or other documents included in the paperwork. In other states, you must specifically request these TROs from the court where your divorce was filed.
Most TROs remain in effect until there's a hearing where the petitioner and the respondent may appear before a judge, present evidence, and argue for or against a longer-lasting order. The hearing generally must take place within a certain period of time—usually within about two or three weeks.
Some states allow emergency TROs that last even a shorter amount of time. In California, for instance, when a judge issues an emergency ex parte protective order to a police officer at a scene of domestic violence, the order will last for only five court business days or seven calendar days. (Cal. Fam. Code §§ 6250.5, 6256 (2022).) Then, if you want a regular TRO that will last until the hearing, you'll need to go to court and apply for it.
TROs that are imposed as part of a divorce usually last until the divorce is final—which could be several months or even years in some cases.
If a judge has issued a TRO against you, you'll receive a copy of the order and a notice about an upcoming court hearing. The order will detail everything you are ordered not to do. It might also include actions you must take.
It's very important that you show up for the hearing, and that you obey the temporary order in the meantime. Violating a restraining order is a serious offense that could land you in jail. Even without that result, it would work against you at the hearing. Learn more about how to defend against a restraining order.
If there are two conflicting court orders affecting the same person, the most recent order typically prevails. As a practical matter, the judge will probably be made aware of the potential conflict and will address it when issuing the current order.
For example, let's say there's been a custody order that calls for the parent who doesn't live with the children (the noncustodial parent) to pick up and drop off the kids after visitation at the home where they live with the custodial parent. But later, a judge orders the noncustodial parent to stay away from the custodial parent's home because of domestic violence or threats. That restraining order would take precedence over the previous custody order. In all likelihood, the judge would order an alternate method of pick up and drop off, perhaps having it take place at a neutral location with other people present, or even at a local police station.