The 209A Breakup: what about my furniture?

Here’s a situation I encounter often: boyfriend and girlfriend have a joint lease. Girlfriend gets tired of the boyfriend. Girlfriend applies for, and of course obtains, a 209A Restraining Order. Boyfriend is booted out of the apartment, at least for the initial 10 days. At the hearing, girlfriend tells a sob story to the judge and sheds tears. The order is extended for one year. Ouch. An all too familiar ouch. To be fair, of course, this ordeal could also play out where genders are reversed and the girlfriend gets the boot, where genders are the same, or among any other relationships covered by the 209A law. But the courts are too often unfair and justice is certainly not gender-blind. And let’s get real: most frequently it’s the boyfriend who is going to be filling out the change of address cards.

For the sake of this discussion, let us assume the “best” case scenario: that no children are involved, that no actual violence or abuse ever took place, that the relationship was winding down in any event, and that the boyfriend was thinking of leaving on his own. A sore spot and the cause of his past immobility, i.e. the reason he has not left sooner, is literally immobility — of his furniture. Say he spent $10,000 of his money on a living room set, bedroom set, electronics, and the obligatory 45 inch flat panel LCD TV. As soon as that restraining order goes into effect and the boyfriend is woken up by the police at 6:00am, in his morning stupor he will be lucky if the police give him 5 minutes to gather his essentials and depart.

While I understand that virtually no one reads these materials in anticipation of a 209A being issued against them, I still feel obliged to share what I think the “5 Minute Essentials Grab List” ought to be:

    1. Grab your cell phone WITH THE CHARGER!
    2. Grab your day planner or PDA or wherever you keep phone numbers and important contact information
    3. Grab your check book, ATM cards, Credit Cards
    4. Grab your Passport, social security card, green card, whatever gives you the ability to work and travel
    5. Grab your laptop, work briefcase, tool bag, uniform, suit, whatever you need to continue working
    6. Grab your prescription medicine

I consider the above list to be essential for most people not to get stuck in desperate need of something inside the residence that they can no longer access. And setting up the police appointment to go and get more things, while may be allowed under the terms of the order, usually ends up being an exercise in futility: chances are the apartment has been rearranged and things won’t be found as easily, if at all. Still, most people worry about grabbing their toiletries and underwear. Come on. Those are the easiest and cheapest items to replace.

What about that furniture? Hold on. More importantly, our boyfriend from the above scenario should sever all financial ties with the girlfriend. A word of warning, in certain situations with children and spouses, financial support is a part of the restraining order, and severing certain financial ties may be a violation. In some instances the ousted spouse is ordered to continue making mortgage payments on the home where he can no longer live. I won’t address that injustice at the moment. In our case, severing financial ties may mean changing passwords and PIN numbers on bank accounts and credit cards to which the girlfriend may have access. If she is an authorized user or a co-signer on an account, her name should be removed. If she is a joint account holder the bank won’t remove her name or allow the account to be closed without her permission. That’s fine. At the least, the boyfriend should withdraw any money from the joint accounts that he feels is rightfully his, that he deposited, or that he earned.

While shutting off utilities to the residence is a violation of the order, it is important for the boyfriend to let the utility companies know that he is no longer responsible for those accounts. Some companies may offer to disconnect the power, phone, etc. This is dangerous territory! The actions must not be viewed as interfering with the residence.

Are we up to the furniture yet? No. In our case, the lease was joint, meaning both persons are responsible for the payment of rent. This responsibility is usually “joint and several,” which means that should the girlfriend fail to pay rent, the landlord can technically come after the boyfriend to collect it despite the fact that the boyfriend no longer lives there and, further, cannot live there because of the 209A Order. The way to handle the situation is to talk to the landlord. Some might be more understanding than others and agree to remove the boyfriend’s name from the lease without a penalty or a buy-out. Others will not cooperate, especially if the credit application was approved based largely on the boyfriend’s income. This situation is tough, and there are no black and white answers here.

It should be noted, however, that if the lease is in the boyfriend’s name alone, he can usually institute an eviction proceeding against the girlfriend, which, if successful, would allow him to have the 209A order modified to allow him to move back in after she is gone. Then, hopefully, the furniture is still there. Same for the TV. In theory, the 209A Order should not affect title or ownership of property, or impair other available legal remedies.

But if the lease is joint and the girlfriend is not leaving, the boyfriend may consider the following:

    1. Get an attorney to speak to the girlfriend or to her attorney about reclaiming the furniture. A compromise of sorts may be achieved.
    2. Be careful asking a friend to contact the girlfriend! This may be viewed as a prohibited contact under the Restraining Order, which would be a violation.
    3. The boyfriend may have several civil causes of action available to him against the girlfriend to reclaim the furniture. This is an adversarial and lengthy process, especially if ownership is disputed.

Then comes the time to actually fill out the change of address card to get the boyfriend’s mail properly forwarded. And he should deal with that cell phone family plan.

Naturally, most 209A cases are not about furniture. Usually emotions run high, vengeance is in the air, and children may be involved. At times a 209A extension will be opposed and fought in court successfully. At other times the parties will reconcile and the girlfriend will ask the court to drop the order. Sometimes, however, a 209A could be an ironic blessing in disguise when it serves as a catalyst to a long overdue and much needed breakup. In those instances, furniture may just be the main concern. Well, good riddance.