Can I Change the Locks?

October 23, 2017

This raises the age-old Can I vs. May I distinction, that many of us became familiar with in elementary school, often in the context of a request to use the bathroom. Just because you can do something, this doesn’t necessarily mean that you may.

When it comes to changing the locks on the doors to the home you shared with your ex, the answer could be both “Yes, you can” and “No, you may not”.

To be cheeky: Do you have the phone number of a locksmith and $50? Then yes, you can probably change the locks.

Under the law, may you – or, more to the point, should you – change the locks?  That’s a little more complicated.

Has your ex moved out with the items they need? Have the two of you agreed that you will remain in the home and that your ex no longer lives there? Have you let your former spouse know that you are changing the locks? If the answer to all these questions is yes, then you may change the locks. Arguably, in such situations your former partner knows that if he or she wishes to attend the home, perhaps to pick up more of their belongings, they should call ahead and make arrangements to do so.

Alternatively, have you gone to court and obtained an order to live in the home alone, aka an order for sole occupation of the family home? Then yes, you may change the locks.

However…

If you and your partner have been living in the same home, there is no court order in place, and he or she has no idea that you plan to change the locks, you can change them while he or she is at work, but you may not want to and perhaps shouldn’t, since this could lead to much more heartache and hassle than you want or need. When your partner arrives home and finds him or herself locked out with their clothes strewn about the front yard, they may end up calling the police, resulting in unnecessary stress for you, neighbourhood gossip and, most importantly, emotional harm to your children if you have them.

Also, if your locked-out former partner decides to resolve the issue in court, a judge may not look favourably on you for taking matters into your own hands. You could find yourself ordered out of the house – leaving you with not only the hassle of moving out, but also your lawyer’s bill and potentially the bill for your ex’s lawyer if the judge sees fit to order that too (known as a costs award).

And along the same lines, don’t throw your ex’s stuff on the lawn (as tempting as this may be). Doing anything that could increase the animosity of your separation will only end up costing you more in the end. Costly court orders aside, raising the ire of your former spouse will make any future attempt at amicable (read: cheaper) negotiation extremely difficult, if not impossible.

While amicable negotiation may mean little to you right now, keep these two key things in mind:

  1. Almost every separation goes through a period of anger, dysfunctional communication and stalemates.
  2. Almost every separation settles before going to trial.

So, if you can keep your cool, this will improve your chances of settling in a few short months rather than settling on the courthouse steps after 18 months of trial preparation – and potentially save you tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees.