Sometimes it is most difficult in divorce cases to divide personal property —the “stuff” accumulated over the years of a relationship. When people share their lives with each other, they also share and accumulate a lot of personal property. Sometimes the task of dividing the household furniture, furnishings and appliances can be a real struggle. Not only can it be difficult to physically divide and value the assets, it can be a real emotional rollercoaster.
I mediated for a divorcing couple recently, who had their most difficult struggles dividing the pots, pans, furniture, washer, dryer, stereo and those little knick-knacks they picked up at the swap meet over the years. Worse they were on the “pack rat” side of things so they accumulated a lot of things together. Each item represented something important. One piece of artwork reminded them of their romantic vacation in Mexico. The silver they had purchased together to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary. The little statuette on the mantel was a gift from their child. All through the house they saw many symbols of their relationship and all that they had invested in each other. As a result, a task to divide personal property was extremely painful.
Here are some tips to help you divide personal property:
Understand that the court would only award a household asset at garage sale value.
Unless it is a Steinway Grand Piano or a rare piece of artwork, the chances are high that your stuff is not worth nearly what you may think. While you are looking at the values of things, think of what you would, as an objective outsider, pay for the item at a garage sale or a flea market. Be careful not to allow emotions to “inflate” in your mind the value of the flatware or the coffee maker. Yes we know that the teddy bear collection is absolutely adorable, but honestly, what would a third person really want to pay for it. Use common sense and don’t allow your emotions to cloud things for you when you divide personal property.
Do it yourself.
It is really not cost effective to pay your attorney $300 plus per hour to fight about who gets which couch or who gets the bath mat. If it’s a high dollar asset such as expensive artwork or collectable antiques, you may want to use your professionals. But, for most things it makes more sense to save the money and do it yourself.
Do an inventory first.
It’s a good idea early in the process and before you start dividing things to make a list. If time is a problem, I often recommend going through the house with a video camera and speaking about each item as you tape. You can then go make your list later.
Make a list to divide personal property.
In fact, make several lists. I suggest four columns. Column 1 means he gets it. Column 2 means she gets it. Sell everything you list in column three and divide what money you get equally. Column 4 is for those things in your closet to throw away or donate like the polyester suit in the closet, your old beta video tapes or the pile of Louis L’Amour novels that you haven’t read in twenty years. Notice, I am not including a list for items about which you cannot agree. I am a big believer in using the old Solomon method. If you can’t agree on who gets it, then sell it or donate it. You simply can’t afford, for most items, to spend the time arguing and spending money on your attorneys. One idea, if you are stuck, is to just take turns picking items you can’t agree on until they are gone. Another idea is to give extremely sentimental items as gifts to your children.
Make a plan for photographs and videos.
I recommend that you choose a date when each of you will make photographs and videos taken during the marriage available to the other. The person making the photograph or video available will allow the other to choose which ones her or she would like to duplicate. There are services available that can duplicate these items and even restore some of them for you for a reasonable fee. With today’s computers, scanners and printers, you may be able to do a lot of this yourselves. Each of you should share equally in the duplication costs.
Pets, according to the law, are property.
I have had many clients tell me how their pets have become nearly as important to them as children. They are often surprised to learn that the court deals with them not as living things so much as property. Few courts will entertain a pet “custody battle.” Remember, a court has the ability to truly play Solomon with your pets and order them sold. I advise parties to do everything they can to work it out relating to the pets. Do everything possible to consider your pets’ needs and do what is best for them rather than allowing them to become an issue of property division.
Be careful if there is a history of domestic violence.
In cases where there has been domestic violence, sometimes it is difficult to sit together and divide personal property. In such instances, it is probably advisable to go ahead and use your attorney as at least a go between. Naturally, if there are restraining orders in place, it would be impossible to meet face to face. But the same ideas described above apply. It is just you will need to make arrangements to inventory the house without the other being present and with proper legal arrangements. Don’t violate a restraining order just to get some stuff out of the house.
I have had many clients tell me that the process of dividing the personal items was a healthy cleansing process.
One client told me, it was nice to get rid of some of our old, useless stuff and start over for a fresh, clean break. If even after following these steps, a couple still finds it difficult emotionally, I recommend making use of a divorce coach, who can even come to your home while you do the division. Typically using a single divorce coach is much more cost effective than using your attorneys to divide household items.
If both parties approach the task to divide personal property with a fair, patient and open mind they will likely be successful in doing the division with little to no attorney intervention. The court’s are particularly happy when parties can reach agreements on their own. Parties should be careful not to allow the division of things bring unnecessary conflict. Remember, they are just things and not people.
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