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.
For expert advice on family law call our team of specialist divorce lawyers or complete our online enquiry form.
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.
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.
For expert advice on family law call our team of specialist divorce lawyers or complete our online enquiry form.
In the past you could only get a judge to make a family law injunction order if there had been domestic violence involving a trip to the hospital or doctor. Those days are long gone with family judges realising that any form of domestic violence, from serious sexual assault to slap or push, is unacceptable. The law now allows you to apply for a family law injunction order if you are subjected to coercive control and behaviour. In this blog we look at what is meant by coercive control and behaviour.
Evolve Family Law solicitors are approachable and friendly, providing expert divorce, children and financial settlement advice, with experience in handling separations or divorces where a partner has been abusive or is narcissistic and controlling. Contact us today and let us help you.
What is Coercive Behaviour?
The question ‘what is coercive behaviour?’ is a good one as what one person would describe as coercive and controlling behaviour may be the normal experience of a husband, wife or partner who is so used to such controlling behaviour that they have become immune to it and adapted their life and thought processes around their partner’s behaviour so as not to upset them or to fit in.
It is often only when you see your husband, wife, or partner starting to exercise the same coercive behaviour on your child and you see the impact of that behaviour on your child’s demeanour and personality that you realise that you have got to do something. In other families it takes a close friend or family member to point out that what your partner sees as loving behaviour is actually stifling you and is coercive behaviour.
From a Cheshire divorce and family law solicitor’s perspective coercive behaviour is any act designed to force or coerce you into doing something against your will or that is intended to harm or intimidate you. Acts can include physical threats as well other forms of humiliation or words said by your partner that make you feel as if you are no longer in control of your life or actions.
The government says that coercive and controlling behaviour is an act designed to make you feel subordinate or dependent on your partner and gives examples of:
Isolation from friends and family
Stopping you from being independent
Regulating your behaviour.
Examples of Coercive Behaviour
It is all very well to be told what the government thinks is coercive behaviour but how does that translate into real life? Below are some examples of real life coercive behaviour:
Controlling what you eat and weigh (it may be said that this is for ‘your own good’ to make you attractive but it is still coercive and controlling behaviour)
Stopping you from having a shower or bath at times other than stipulated
Preventing you from leaving the family home on your own or stopping you from seeing your friends and family
Restricting your access to money so you only get an allowance to buy food and have to account for any money spent by you
Telling you that you can't pick up the baby or play with the children other than at times allowed
Telling you that you can't go online or monitoring your computer and telephone usage
Dictating what clothes you should wear (either too modest or too flamboyant for your taste) or saying what make-up you can wear (if any).
Coercion and control doesn’t just happen to women in heterosexual relationships. Women can also coerce and control their male partners or husbands. Coercion and control also occurs in same sex relationships.
If something amounts to coercive and controlling behaviour then it doesn’t matter if you are married, in a civil partnership or cohabiting and living together. It is the act or behaviour that is important rather than the legal status of your family relationship.
Recognising Coercive Behaviour
Coercive and controlling behaviour can be insidious and hard for you or your friends and family to spot. That is because the coercion can be subtle (for example, ‘you look fat or tarty in that outfit’) or the degree of control can grow slowly over time so you don’t recognise it for what it is (for example, getting you to agree that it is too much hassle to see your mother every week to eventually telling you who you can and can't see).
When you are in a relationship, or you are a close friend or family member, it can be hard to spot or recognise coercive behaviour, often because it is dressed up as ‘only wanting to do what is best’ or because it is said you are so stupid or mentally unwell that your partner or husband or wife knows what is best for you.
Don’t forget that coercion and controlling behaviour doesn’t have to be face to face. Some of the most intimidating coercive behaviour can be carried out by bombarding someone with text messages and phone calls or remotely spying on activities.
What can I do about coercive behaviour in my relationship?
If you are being subjected to coercion and control in your relationship then you can:
Try and get your partner to see his/her behaviour for what it is. This may involve counselling to get to the root cause of the coercive behaviour. In some family situations the nature of the coercive control is such that it is not safe or healthy for you to stay in the relationship and so counselling and trying to stay together may not be a realistic option as you need to leave the family home and separate permanently
Separate and start divorce proceedings. If your husband or wife has exercised coercive or controlling behaviour you should be able to start divorce proceedings based on their unreasonable behaviour. Even if you don’t want to start divorce proceedings based on your spouse’s unreasonable behaviour it is still important to tell your divorce solicitor about the behaviour. They can talk to you about your divorce proceedings options, such as starting divorce proceedings on your partner’s new relationship (adultery)
Separate and start injunction proceedings. An injunction order is made by the family court. The court can either make a non-molestation or an occupation order to protect you and your children
Make a complaint to the police. The Serious Crime Act 2015 created a new criminal offence of controlling or coercive behaviour in intimate or familial relationship’. If your partner is found guilty then in a serious case of coercive behaviour they could be sent to prison for up to five years.
What is a non-molestation order?
A non-molestation injunction order is a family court order that stops the person who is behaving in a coercive or controlling manner towards you or your child from continuing to do so.
What is an occupation order?
An occupation injunction order is a family court order that stops the person who is behaving in a coercive or controlling manner towards you or your child from continuing to live at the family home or from re-entering the family home or restricts your partner or spouse from certain rooms in the family home.
Breaching an injunction order
If your partner or spouse breaches a family court injunction order then it is a contempt of court and a criminal offence.
Talking to your divorce and family law solicitor about coercive behaviour
If you take the step of deciding to speak to a Cheshire divorce solicitor about your marriage or relationship it is important to tell them about the coercive control. Many people are too embarrassed to talk about their partner or spouse’s behaviour or they decide that their partner’s behaviour isn’t relevant because they don’t want to start divorce proceedings based on unreasonable behaviour or start injunction proceedings.
Even if you don’t want your divorce solicitor to act on the coercive behaviour information you give them, it is still important to tell them about it so that they understand why you may have concerns about your children having contact and why you want a child arrangements order or why you may want a financial settlement that includes a clean break financial court order so there are no ongoing financial ties between you and your husband or wife.
Cheshire divorce solicitors won't judge you or criticise you for not leaving your partner any earlier. However, what they will do is support you during your relationship breakdown, finding the best long term family solutions for you and your family and to do that they need to know about the coercive and controlling behaviour to help you and your family.