Changing locks on divorce or separation
The scenario is a common one. Your ex has moved out of the house but they believe it is ok to still come and go as they please. They may still have possessions at the house that they want access to, or they will turn up unannounced to see the children.
Sometimes if they still have a key, they will just let themselves in and they may even return whilst you are out of the property, only finding out when you return home and things have been moved.
Many people ask, “Can I change the lock on my property when my ex has left?” The answer is not straight forward and will depend on the circumstances of the situation.
One of the following scenarios will usually occur:
- You both own the property and are on the deeds
- You both rent the property and are both on the tenancy
- One of you owns the property but you have both been living there together as a couple
- One of you rents the property but the other person was living there with you as a couple
Let have a look at these in pairs:
- You both own the property and are on the deeds
- You both rent the property and are on the tenancy
You should not change the locks without agreement. You are both legally entitled to possession of the property and both of you can live there. It does not matter that your ex has moved out, they can return at any point and continue living in the property.
You are legally able to change the locks yourself – but be mindful that your ex can return at any point and legally change them again. They can use a locksmith or use force to gain entry. Unless they are committing a ‘breach of the peace’ there is nothing the police can do to stop them gaining re-entry to the property. They have a legal right to do so.
So the short answer is ‘yes’ you can change the locks but your ex can just change them again if they wish to.
Now let’s look at the second pairing:
- One of you owns the property but you have both been living there together as a couple.
4. One of you rents the property but the other person was living there with you as a couple.
In such cases, you may be able to change the locks. However if you are married or have been living together for a long period of time, then your ex may also have rights to live in the property. The nature and length of the relationship is not specifically defined under legislation but if you have been living together in a relationship for a few years, then you will usually fall under this law.
The person who has moved out may have rights to live in the property and if you take steps to stop them doing that then they may apply to the court for an order to regain entry. The court could even order that they remain in the property whilst you are excluded!
So there are very few circumstances following a relationship that you can legally change the locks to your property, without any repercussions. So what can you do?
If your ex-partner has been violent, abusive or there is a risk to you or your children, then you can apply for an occupation order through the courts. You can apply for an order without one of these applying but you would need to show a good reason why.
You can apply for this order using form FL401 and you do not need to consider mediation by way of a MIAM in order to submit this form. There is also no court fee to pay. The court will consider the details of the case and make an order. In some cases they can make an order in the absence of the other party if making such an application would put you at risk.
Cases where there is risk to you or your children should be acted on swiftly and ideally with the help of a solicitor to ensure your case is properly present to the court. This will give you the best chance of having an order made in your case. You can of course represent yourself or use a Mckenzie friend, but taking good legal advice before can be really helpful.
If your ex has not been violent or abusive and there is no risk to your or your children then your ex has as much rights to enter the property as you do. In such cases you should discuss the situation between yourselves and ask them that they do not just enter the house, or turn up unannounced. Irrespective of their legal rights, it is a matter of respect and consideration for each other. If you cannot discuss it between yourselves, then family mediation will help you reach an understanding on what you can and cannot do.
Ultimately the issues surrounding property and ownership will be sorted as part of your divorce if you seek a consent order, or separation if you seek a financial order on your assets. But as going through court for such matters will take a long time and cost in excess of £20,000 in legal fees, you are better of reaching an agreement outside of court and sticking to it. Any agreement made outside of court can subsequently be made legally binding by consent if you both choose.
What about my right to privacy?
Article 8 of the Human Rights Act 1988 gives everyone in the UK a right of privacy to their private life, their home and correspondence. It means your sexuality, body, personal identity, relationships and personal information cannot be interfered with or dictated by the state.
The rights to a property fall under Family Law Act 1996 and are a separate matter. Your ex would not be able to take anything that is clearly yours without your permission and would not be able to read your emails, letters or record or monitor you in any way. These could be criminal offences and doing them can have serious repercussions. If you believe this is the case, you should seek urgent legal advice or report it as a crime to your local police.
Does it matter if I am paying the mortgage, rent or utilities?
No. Who actually pays for the property has no bearing on the right to stay there. It is a good opportunity to look at whether you may entitled to additional support, such as child benefit, universal credit or child maintenance now that you are living in separate properties. Conversely if you ex is paying the bills it does not increase or decrease their rights under family law to entry to the property.
Does it matter who is registered for council tax?
No. Whose name is registered for council tax would not impact on the right to stay at the property. If you are the only adult living at the property, you should ask the council to reduce your council tax bill. You can find your local council here.
What can I do if I cannot just change the locks on my property?
This is a common issue that frequently occurs when one partner moves has recently moved out. Unless
there is the imminent likelihood of harm to you, your children or property, we recommend the following steps:
- Talk with your ex-partner. Agree what will happen when they return to the house. What will happen when they see the children or with their possessions. Try to agree who will cover essentials such as the mortgage, bills and council tax. If you are unable to do this, then try:
- Family Mediation. A family mediator can help you agree a plan between you on what will happen with the property, what arrangements can be put in place in the meantime to cover the mortgage or rent, bills, child arrangements and how you will deal with returning to the property. If this breaks down or does not work then:
- Go to court for an occupation order for the interim period or seek a longer-term solution by way of a financial order on your divorce or separation. You will need to have considered mediation (option 2) by way of a MIAM to apply for a financial order.
Changing the locks on a property following the breakdown of a relation, whether you own it or not, is most likely to be a futile action – as your ex could just change the locks again, legally gain entry by force, or apply to the court for an occupation order. There are very few circumstances where you can change the locks to a property following a divorce or separation without any legal consequences.
You can call us on 0330 999 0959 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
“Can I change the locks after my ex partner has moved out?” has been produced by Ali Carter & the family mediators at Mediate UK.
Ali is the Managing Director of Divorce Ltd, a mediator, divorce negotiator and has previously been through a divorce himself. He has helped in over 3000 divorce or separations since 2010.