As family law solicitors we are often asked whether it is OK to change the locks to the family home. Sometimes we are asked this question before a husband, wife, civil partner or unmarried partner has decided to separate. On other occasions, the locks have already been changed and an ex-partner has already been excluded from what was their family home.
Separation and changing the locks
Locks are a hot topic as emotions, trust, and control issues can all be engaged when the subject of locks and access to the family home is mentioned.
A lot of people assume that if the locks to the family home are changed that means the excluded spouse, civil partner, or cohabitee loses their legal rights or financial claims over the property. That assumption isn’t correct.
A change of locks does not confer ownership of a property on the spouse or partner who now controls access to the property. Your property rights will depend on your legal status – whether you are a spouse or civil partner or whether you were in an unmarried relationship. For spouses and civil partners, property rights stem from family law. For unmarried couples, their family home rights stem from an interpretation of property and trust law.
If you cannot agree with your partner on whether a house should be sold, or transferred to you or your ex-partner, then the court can decide on the appropriate order. In urgent cases involving domestic violence or abuse, the court can make a temporary injunction order to exclude a partner from the property. The court can then decide on long-term property ownership at a later date.
Changing the locks if you own the property
Some people assume that if they own the family home in their sole name, they can change the locks and exclude a spouse. That is not right. A spouse has a right of occupation in a family home, whether the property is owned in joint names or not. Whether or not the locks have been changed any financial claims to the house continue until there is an agreement or a family court order.
Another common assumption is that it is OK to change locks once a spouse has left the family home as once the decision to leave has been made by them then they cannot change their mind and come back. That is not correct either.
In some situations, a homeowner may ask their family law solicitor about changing locks as they want to feel in control of a property. In other cases, there are genuine worries either over privacy or personal security. If it is accepted that one spouse should leave the property then it is usual to agree that, whether they retain the key or not, they will only return at an agreed time and for a reason. For example, to collect remaining items.
If there are concerns about personal safety and domestic violence the court can make an injunction order setting out who can occupy a family home until a long-term decision is made on whether or not the house should be sold or transferred to one spouse or partner.
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Changing the locks when you have children
Where there are children there is often an argument that a spouse or partner should retain a key so that they can come and go to see the children. Whether that works all depends on how a couple has managed their separation. In some scenarios, both adults and children are comfortable with mum or dad returning to put children to bed with a book or to babysit but, in other families, continued key access can give very mixed messages to both adults and children and cause anxiety.
It is important to talk to a family law solicitor about property ownership and locks and to reach an agreement on whether locks are changed or not. You may need to discuss whether you or your ex-partner can get access to the property until the financial settlement is reached.
Locks and reaching an agreement over the family home
The hot topic of locks should not distract from what is often the equally emotional but trickier issue of sorting out what will happen long-term with the family home.
The obtaining of estate agent appraisals and exploration of mortgage options enables a separated couple to make well-informed decisions about what they want to happen to the family home on a long-term basis. Those decisions can be made by the couple with the help of their family law solicitor or during family mediation.
If an agreement cannot be reached then whether you are a spouse, civil partner, or former cohabitee, the family court can be asked to sort out who is entitled to enter the property and live in it on a short and long-term basis. What is important to realise is that changing the locks to a family home does not confer property ownership as that is all down to agreement or the court order.