Can I Change the Locks on the House?

Can I Change the Locks on the House?

One question that comes up all the time, especially at the beginning of a divorce case, is “Can I change the locks on my house during the divorce.”  The short answer is yes, but please do not stop reading yet.  As with anything else in a divorce, the answer is actually more complicated than a simple yes or no.

In Kentucky, when the parties are married, unless and until the court says otherwise, they each have equal access and rights to marital property regardless of whether it is titled in the name of the husband, the wife or jointly.  In other words, until a ruling from the court, either party has just as much right to the house as the other.

This means that either spouse has the right to change the locks.  Likewise, either spouse has the right to force his/her way into the house and that should not be arrested for breaking into his/her own home.  (Keep in mind that if the house is damaged during the break-in, the party who did so may be required to pay to repair the damage or otherwise be penalized in the final property division.)  As a practical matter, changing the locks on the residence is a fairly hostile action.  It could escalate an already volatile situation and increase tension between the parties.  Increased tension and hostility usually results in more litigation and more attorney fees.

Normally, one of the first motions that is filed in a divorce case is a motion for temporary relief which usually includes a request for exclusive use and possession of the former marital residence.  Once the court has awarded temporary, exclusive use and possession to one party, the other party may not come into the home without the express permission of the party to whom it was awarded or an order of the court.  At that point, it is not only reasonable to change the locks, you are probably stupid if you do not change them.  If the other spouse enters the home uninvited at that point, he/she could be subject to contempt sanctions or possibly even criminal charges.

In addition to changing the locks on the house, do not forget the other points of access.  Security system codes need to be changed and garage door openers need to be secured or the codes changed.  If you have a security company monitoring your home, you may need to provide them with a copy of the temporary order so they know your estranged spouse is not to be on the premises.

As with anything else in a divorce case, before you act, consult with your divorce and custody attorney before taking any steps that may escalate an already tense situation.

Photo courtesy of Matthias Ripp

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