Can I change the locks on my mom’s house?

Dealing with well over 1,000 probate cases in my 25 years as a probate attorney I have been asked “Can I change the locks on [mom/dad/grandma/grandpa/etc] house now that they are dead?” The stories are different, and though often unlawfully, there are people in living in mom’s house. This may be a squatter, this may be a tenant, this may be a relative, this may be a caretaker. It may be someone who was “taking care” of mom and it may just be a neighborhood homeless person. They seem to often be drug addicts or so I am told. The fact is they are living in your mom’s house and you know it’s not right that they are there. On top of that these horrible people are usually doing bad things to your mom’s house.

Here’s the thing, and I need you to take a deep breath as you read this, these people likely have legal rights and you likely can not just change the locks… and you most certainly can not physically remove them from the house. I know it’s horrible and I get it that it is not right. However, they likely have rights. A tenant, mom’s caretaker, your brother, a squatter, a homeless person, and the list goes on. They all might have rights to some degree.

My general rule of thumb is do not just change the locks and, as I said above, do not forcefully eject them from the house.

If the person is truly a homeless person who has broken into the house then call the local police or sheriff to assist you. Do not take action on your own. I have not checked recently but a squatter does achieve rights, in California, after a very few days living there. Thus a homeless person who has broken into the house should be dealt with more quickly than say your brother who has been living with mom for five years. They are different situations entirely.

The problem with changing the locks improperly is YOU could be sued by this horrible person who is living in and likely destroying mom’s house. I know it’s not right but I am telling you the truth. YOU COULD BE SUED FOR CHANGING THE LOCKS.

I always recommend hiring a landlord-tenant attorney ASAP in these situations as they can help you understand your legal options. I handle the probate side of things.

One way the probate is important is we can go to Court and get Letters of Special Administration that give you the legal authority to evict the people. You need this legal authority to bring a lawsuit. Otherwise you don’t have authority.

Whatever you do this area of law is ripe with protections for “tenants” so you need to be careful. You need to be careful with people who are tenants and you need to be careful to not let squatters become “tenants.” An experienced landlord-tenant or real estate attorney can help you.

Good luck. -John

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