One of the questions we are asked frequently is, “my partner has left the house and I don’t want them back and I’m thinking about changing the locks. Can I do this?” The answer depends on how you own your house.
Where you jointly own the property or jointly rent
If the house was purchased in joint names, your partner is a registered co-owner and that status confers on him or her a legal right to enter and remain within the boundary of the property, including the gardens. That is a right that you cannot prevent your partner from exercising except by way of a Court Order granting you exclusive occupation (an Occupation Order) – even if he or she has voluntarily vacated. The same is true where you are both tenants and both your names appear on your lease.
If you change the locks without your partner’s knowledge and without providing them with a set of keys, you will be acting illegally and in that situation, your ex can either (a) use reasonable force to gain re-entry (but must pay to fix any damage caused and should be wary of committing a breach of the peace or criminal damage), or, more correctly, (b) apply to the Court for an Order requiring you to hand over a set of keys. Absent an Occupation Order in your favour, or evidence of domestic abuse, the Court is likely to make that Order and may make you pay your ex’s costs.
If you do change the locks without consent you do so at your peril and that is not advised. The appropriate course of action if you feel threatened or your think your ex is a risk to the safety of your children is to apply to the Court for an Occupation Order, which, if granted, prevents your ex from exercising their right of occupation (in effect banning them from the property). Such an order will only be granted if you provide evidence of domestic abuse: it is not sufficient simply to say, “I don’t want my partner in the house because we have split up.”
Where you are sole owner or solely rent
In this situation the property belongs to you alone, meaning that your ex has no legal right to be there without your consent. In this case, your ex is a ‘licensee’, not a co-owner, which means you can do what you wish with the property, including changing the locks.
Where you are married and the property is the family home then your ex has a right not to be evicted as a consequence of the breakdown of the marriage: your ex can apply to the Land Registry to register Matrimonial Home Rights which will confer a legal right to reside. If your ex does this, you cannot fetter their right without an Occupation Order. Where your ex has voluntarily moved out of the house, they will need a Court Order allowing them to return.
In most cases it is preferable to resolve issues of occupation without the involvement of the Court and arrangements should be made for the vacating party to collect their belongings.
If you wish to speak with one of our specialist solicitors in confidence please contact us on 01622 23 88 50, or at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you wish to speak with Richard or Tanya, our family law solicitors, you can email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Watch this space next week for Myth Number Five.