Can I change the locks?
This is one of the top 10 questions I'm asked by new clients. The answer isn't real clear as so many issues need to be addressed before a spouse or parents decides to change the locks. Similarly, you may want to check out my article about Orders of Protections by clicking here.
So long as you’re names on the deed to the house (exclusively, or with your spouse), you have the legal right to change the locks on your house, much like you would do, if you lost your keys or just wanted new locks for your home. But sometimes in a divorce, the typical application of the law is abandoned by the Court because of other considerations. Other variables must be examined to truly find the “real” answer. In this case, a spouse many want to reconsider what would otherwise be a "legal" move.
The reality is that most Judges don't like the idea of forcing a spouse out of the house, especially, if there are not many options for the spouse who is looking for a new (or temporary) home. The courts want you to be reasonable, and the "status quo" test usually applies. "Status Quo" being that all should stay the same as it was before the divorce started. You can click here, if you want to know more about the terms "status quo." If you fail the status quo test, you’ll be looked upon poorly by the judge, and that reputation will follow you through the entire divorce. So, where is the line?
It’s hard to say when a spouse would otherwise cross the line from being the squeaky clean spouse, to the spouse violating the status quo test. So, here are some key considerations when considering changing the locks:
(i) If you and your spouse have children, consider that the Judge may not like the fact that by changing locks, you are separating the other parents from the children. Remember, the hallmark of all the custody factors is your ability (or inability) to foster a relationship between the children and the other parent. Don't lose a custody case because you want to lock out your spouse.
(ii) If your spouse went to run a quick errand, and upon his or her return, the locks where changed preventing access to clothing, personal items, and the like, I would say that this will not look good for you. Getting cute by leaving clothes and items on the porch or lawn will also hurt you in the courtroom. Being cute only hurts you in court.
(iii) If your spouse has moved out, and has been out for some time where personal belongings have long been divided, I would say that you safely can change the locks without it looking poorly upon you.
(iv) If you're uncertain and the facts are not very clear, then most attorneys would advise not to risk it. Ultimately, if you’re in court on the issue, you have invited court activity, which only means the case will now cost you more money.
Be mindful that attorney's fees may be the least of your concerns when locking out your spouse. Some locked-out spouses simply wait for you to leave, and have the locks changed yet again. This then turns the table around and some spouses do this several times over until both are emotionally and financially exhausted with the gamesmanship.
Also, be mindful that Locksmiths aren’t all that cheap, and combined with the cost of litigating the issue may not be work risk. Overall, you should consult with an experienced divorce attorney when planning to change the locks on the house to best approach the issue with minimal impact to your case and to your checkbook. There are likely better legal options to achieve the same or similar results.
If you have more questions about this issue or other issues about your case, feel free to call me for a free phone consultation.
Paul D. Nordini