One of the most common questions individuals going through divorce have is whether or not they can change the locks on the marital home to keep soon-to-be ex-spouses from entering the property. As an owner of the property, you can change the locks on your home at any time. However, whether or not you are required to allow your ex-spouse free access to the home depends on your local laws and the circumstances of your case.
When Free Access Ends
The only time you can legally change the locks on your home with the express purpose of preventing your ex from entering the property is after the court has awarded you sole possession of the home. This can occur at any time before, during, or after divorce proceedings. Once you have the court order providing you with exclusive use and possession, then you can call a locksmith to have the doors rekeyed.
Outside of this, things get a little gray, and your right to prevent access will depend on a combination of the circumstances of the separation and state laws. In general, if the home can be considered marital property, then the other spouse cannot be barred from accessing it without a court order. The home can be considered marital property if:
- Both names are on the title
- Only one spouse's name is on the title, but both spouses contributed financially to the mortgage payments and upkeep
If the house can be considered non-marital or separate property and you can prove your spouse has no financial interest in the home, then you may be able to claim exclusive ownership based on that fact and bar access.
Some states have laws on the books that automatically confer exclusive use rights to you if your ex commits certain actions. For example, in North Carolina, you are considered separated the moment your spouse tells you (verbally or in writing) that he or she is moving out and has no intention on returning. As such, the law considers the person to have vacated the home, and you can legally change the locks without having to obtain a court order.
State law may also allow you to change the locks on the home to keep your spouse out if he or she physically abused or sexually assaulted you. California passed a law several years ago that lets victims of domestic abuse, stalking, and sexual assault legally have the locks changed on their homes as long as they have restraining orders requiring the perpetrators to move out of the domicile.
If you want to change the locks on your home because you fear for your safety, it's best to speak to an attorney about the legal options available to you in your state.
Preventing Property Theft
Many times people want to keep their soon-to-be ex-spouses out of the home because they are afraid the exes will attempt to take marital assets that have not yet been awarded by the court. For instance, the ex may want to grab the big-screen television from the living room even though you did not give the individual permission to take it. There may also be concern the ex-spouse will take important papers or evidence needed to prove certain claims in court (e.g. photographic evidence of an affair).
If you're worried about these issues, there are a couple of things you can do to protect your interests:
- Relocate the property in question. For instance, you could put the television in a secure storage facility until the divorce has been finalized.
- Place important paperwork in a wall or floor safe, safety deposit box, and/or give copies of it to your attorney.
- Have a friend or family member house sit when you're not home. This can deter an ex from attempting to take property while the home is unoccupied. Additionally, you'll have a witness if the person takes something he or she shouldn't have.
Once you've gotten the legalities of your separation resolved, don't hesitate to contact a locksmith to have the locks changed on your home. Though your divorce may have been amicable, you never know what the future holds. It's best to take precautions to prevent future problems.