Can I change the locks on the marital home?

My spouse moved out. Can I change the locks?

By M. J. Goodwin

 

I get this question a lot. The answer depends on where you are in the separation and divorce process.

 

The former marital home belongs to both parties, regardless of how it’s titled and regardless of who pays for it. So just because one spouse has “left” does not mean that he or she cannot come back. People often change the locks in the interim, only to learn that it is perfectly legal for the absent spouse to break into the home.

 

Temporary possession of the home can be addressed at a temporary hearing. Once the Judge has awarded possession of the home to one spouse, then the other cannot enter the home without permission. If entry without permission occurs, that act is arguably contempt of court for which the violator can be sanctioned. Sanctions can include being jailed for up to one year, as well as fines, community service and attorney fees being imposed.

 

Final ownership of the home, as well as equitable distribution of any equity, is handled at the final hearing.

 

The short answer is yes, you can change the locks. But don’t be surprised if you come home to find that your spouse has legally broken into the former marital home.

 

If your spouse has left, it is time to see an attorney. Don’t wait around in limbo. Separation is an emotional, sometimes dangerous, time. You need to know what to expect and how you will move forward.

 

Contact M. J. Goodwin, who has 23 years of Family Court experience at: mj@mjgoodwin.com or by calling 864-375-0909. Email inquiries are typically answered within twelve hours.

 

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