My Spouse Moved Out of the Home - Can I Change the Locks?
September 12, 2012 - by Eric Anderson
If you are going through a divorce and your spouse is staying elsewhere, you may wonder whether or not you can change the locks on the house. The short answer is "yes," you can change the locks because you are an owner of the home. However, doing so does not give you the legal right to exclusively occupy the home. The real question is should you change the locks? If you change the locks while your spouse is still an owner of the home as well, then they certainly have the right to come back and enter the house. Your spouse would most likely be within their rights to hire a locksmith to get back into the house. If you've changed the locks without telling your estranged spouse, you may make the divorce process even more contentious.
A common reason why people want to change the locks is they fear that their spouse will come to the house and take or hide assets. There are a couple of ways to deal with this fear. First, you should inventory everything in the house that you think your spouse may try to take - perhaps take pictures of the items as well. Second, you could try to communicate with your spouse and allow them to collect their belongings prior to changing the locks. You can also try to discuss an arrangement whereby certain property will stay in the house pending the final property division in the divorce. Ultimately, both spouses will be accountable to the court for any property alleged to be missing.
Everything above assumes that there is no court order in place awarding the house to one party or the other. During the divorce process, it can be common for one party to be temporarily awarded the exclusive use and possession of the house - in which case changing the locks would almost certainly be acceptable. Further, if there has been domestic abuse or harassment, the abused party can also seek exclusive use and possession of the house from the court. Absent domestic abuse, harassment, or a court order, the police are unlikely to get involved in the situation of an estranged spouse trying to get back into the house.
However, if there is no court order regarding the house, then it can be a bit of a gray area as to whether you can or should change the locks to the house. It is important to really examine your motivation for doing so, weigh the possible consequences, and act accordingly. Consult an attorney if you have questions about your circumstances.