When a couple first separates under contentious circumstances, I will often get questions about what each party’s respective rights are in the early stages, i.e. before the long process has started of formally dividing up their assets and dealing with any support and child-related issues. One of the most common questions is whether the spouse who remains in the matrimonial home after separation can change the locks in order to exclude the other spouse.
In Ontario, the short answer is: No.
If the now-separated married couple were living in the matrimonial home, and one of them has moved out, neither the Family Law Act nor other legislation entitles the remaining spouse to change the locks. This is because under that legislation the matrimonial home is afforded special status: both spouses are expressly granted an equal right to possession of it. This right of equal possession subsists even after separation unless or until:
1) there has been a separation agreement reached between the parties; or
2) a court order has been granted to establish that one of the spouses is entitled to what is known as “exclusive possession” of the matrimonial home pending a family trial. (And note that once exclusive possession has been granted to one of the spouses, he or she obtains the sole right to live in the home, regardless of who owns legal title.)
Unless one of these mechanisms is in place to override what is otherwise each spouse’s equal right to stay in the home, neither can formally lock out the other. In fact, both spouses will have a right to actually live in the home until a resolution on possession of the home is reached. For obvious reasons, however, this is usually untenable because most separations occur under very high-conflict, emotional-charged circumstances.
But even if one spouse has moved out, he or she is not entitled to come-and-go at will. Rather, there must be adequate and reasonable notice given of any intention to return, for example to retrieve any personal property that has been left behind. Similarly, if a court order for exclusive possession has been obtained in favour of one spouse, it will usually be a term of that order that the other spouse can periodically re-enter for specific purposes, with notice in advance. In this context the court may also order the locks to be changed, if the circumstances between the parties warrant it.
Finally, it is important to note that the order for “exclusive possession” is merely that; it does not give the remaining spouse the right to sell or dispose of any of the furniture or other belongings until all of the separation and divorce issues, including equalization of net family property, have been fully resolved by a court.