As a family law solicitor I am often asked whether or not the locks to the family home can be changed. Sometimes I am asked the question before a couple have taken the official decision to go their separate ways, at other times after the locksmiths have already been and gone. Occasionally the changing of locks is raised in a letter from a spouse’s solicitor.
Locks are a hot topic as emotions, trust and control issues can all be engaged when the subject is mentioned. A lot of people assume that if the locks to the family home are changed that means the excluded spouse loses their rights or financial claims over the property. That assumption isn’t correct. A change of locks doesn’t confer ownership of a property. If you can’t agree with your partner on whether a house should be sold, transferred to you or to your ex then the Court can decide on the appropriate order.
Others assume that if they own the family home in their sole name they can change the locks and bar a spouse. That’s not right either. 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 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 go has been made by them then they can’t change their mind and come back. That isn’t correct either.
In some situations people ask about changing locks as they want to feel in control of a property and 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 any concerns about personal safety the Court can make orders about who can occupy a family home until long term decisions are made on whether or not the house should be sold or transferred to one spouse.
Where there are children there is often an argument that a spouse should retain a key so that they can come and go to see the children. Whether that works all depends on how a couple have 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 it can give very mixed messages to both adults and children and cause anxiety.
It is important to take objective specialist legal advice on property ownership and locks and to reach an agreement on whether locks are changed or not and, if relevant, get advice on access to the property until the financial settlement is reached. It is vital that the hot topic of locks doesn’t 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 spouses to then 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 or if they can’t agree by the Court .What is important to realise is that changing locks doesn’t confer ownership as that is all down to agreement or Court order.
For advice on any aspect of divorce or family finances please give me a call on +44 (0)1625 728012 or email me at [email protected]