Can I Change The Locks?

A separation is imminent. Or maybe you just want your partner out of the house. Now. Can you just change the locks?

That would be the easiest thing to do. But it might not be the best thing to do. Think it through before you act. If you change the locks, how will your partner react? If you aren’t willing to bet me $1,000,000 that your guess will be correct, then you probably shouldn’t change the locks.

Let’s say that you are pretty confident; or that you just want to do it anyway. Here are some possible reactions that you can expect:

Your Partner Stays Away. Rather than deal with it, your partner might just stay away and take up with parents, friends or a new significant other. Sounds like a victory, doesn’t it? Well, it might be short-lived. If you end up in the courtroom, you should expect that the “changing-of-the-locks incident” will be brought up, exaggerated and paraded around the courtroom in an effort to make you look like the bad guy who “kicked [your partner] out of his/her home!!” You risk tarnishing your image with the judge, unless you can persuade the court that you had very good reasons to act unilaterally (eg, without the judge's consent).

Your Partner Starts Causing Problems. Is your “better” half prone to throwing things, breaking things, being loud, causing a scene, beating down a door, or harming you? If so, then you or your neighbors might be calling the law.

The Law Gets Involved. First, know that domestic disturbances are among the most dangerous situations that law enforcement officers face, which makes them the most dangerous situation for you to be involved with. Law enforcement will take immediate action, meaning, if you or your partner cannot keep your cool, one or both of you might be arrested. But if everyone stays cordial, then the officer(s) will conduct an on-site investigation. They will probably ask if either of you has somewhere else to go “just for tonight” or “just until things cool down.” They want to diffuse the situation as quickly as possible and if people are squabbling the best way to do that is to send one of them away. It’s possible that they will advise that you don’t have any legal right to keep your partner out of the house. But the reality is that they don’t want to get called back out, so they will most likely be looking to separate the two of you for at least a few hours.

What is legally correct? In Georgia, legal occupants of a dwelling have the right to be there unless they voluntarily leave, are arrested, or a court orders them out. For example, a tenant who doesn’t pay the rent and/or whose lease has expired cannot be locked out until the landlord has made appropriate demand for possession and, if refused, gets a court order to legally evict the tenant. Official Code of Georgia, § 44-7-50(a) (2015 Edition).

Similarly, a domestic partner cannot be forced out of their residence unless there is a court order. In a divorce temporary hearing, the court can determine who will stay in the house while the case is pending. Of course, in a final divorce hearing, the judge will determine the ultimate possession/ownership of the residence. Finally, in a domestic violence situation, the court has the power to order a person to stay away from their own residence. Official Code of Georgia, § 19-13-4(a)(2).

As with most things in life, the honey can work a better result than the hammer. If things are respectful, a suggestion to separate can be worked into any conversation. If there is some give and take, many problems can be solved. Be smart! If you understand what is important to your partner, then maybe you can work a trade to accomplish your goal.

Authored by Cynthia L. Patton, Esq. This blog post is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. You should consult your own attorney for specific legal advice.