One thing that every couple who gets divorced has to do, is decide how to divide all the household items. That’s the furniture, the stuff in the garage, your hobby items, the kids’ toys… you name it, it all has to be divided except that most of it can’t just be cut in half and even if it could, you’d likely end up with a bunch of stuff you had no interest in.
For some people, this is easy. There’s no emotional attachment and they’re ready to walk away from it all.
For others, it’s more challenging – there are particular items they really want and some that their STBX really wants and they may overlap.
And for some people, it’s more about what’s equitable but even that can be a debate.
Regardless, one thing we all need to remember is that for the vast majority of us, it is never worth arguing over these items in court or even in mediation. The fees for lawyers and/or mediators could easily outweigh the value of the item and by the time the issue is resolved, you may have been able to purchase a duplicate, maybe even two or three.
The good news is that you don’t have to figure out how to be smart about dividing your household items – plenty of people have done it before you and there are experts who do this daily for a living. Carrie Mitchell of TWS Inventory is one of these experts and she shared her insider tips with me in this interview on Conversations About Divorce. You can listen to the episode here or … keep reading.
Who’s Going To Do It?
If you were approaching this logically, from a project management perspective you’d put one person in charge of coordinating this but in the normal chaos that comes with divorce, discussions about dividing the household items can tend to be disorganized with one party focusing on some items, the other party worried about some other things and a whole bunch of things that no one’s thinking about.
Mitchell says there’s no one answer but it is best if you can agree on an approach. Could one of you accept responsibility for coordinating it or could each of you take responsibility for specific areas of the house such as the kitchen, the garage or the basement?
There are some situations which call for the assistance of a neutral third party. If there is a restraining order against one party, that party is not going to be able to enter the property and they may not have enough trust that their spouse is going to accurately inventory all the items. Professionals can also help with creating an inventory for a vacation home or where individuals don’t have sufficient time or emotional wherewithal to do this.
Make A List
However you’ve decided to approach this challenge, you need to go from room to room documenting all the items that aren’t personal to one person. You don’t need to go overboard on the detail – you don’t need to itemize every single piece of glassware or flatware. It’s often sufficient to describe items collectively, such as “Mandy’s office supplies” or “gardening tools.”
You’ll want to segregate from this list any items you regard as separate property. These would generally be items that you brought into the marriage and items you received as gifts during the marriage.
Mitchell says, “The rule of thumb is, if you received the item as a gift from your spouse, then the court would be more likely to award it you. The same is true for gifts from your family to you as a family.”
My father, for example, gave my husband and I a painting as a Christmas gift one year. When we were separating, we both wanted the painting. According to Mitchell, if we were unable to come to an agreement and did end up going to court about the painting, the court would be more likely to award it to me because of the familial relationship.
Prioritize Your Choices
Once you have a list of all the items regarded as marital property, then you can go through the list and identify all the items you’d like. Your partner does likewise. Then review the list and sort it into four categories – yours, theirs, both and not wanted.
Items that appear only on your list or your spouse’s list only are easy to deal with. It’s the items that you both want that will cause the most hassle. Hopefully there won’t be too many of these. Mitchell says, “In my experience, it comes down to pretty few items are really in dispute and look at the time and money you’ve already saved if you have to dispute only these items with an attorney or in court.”
Before you go to your attorney on the disputed items it’s worth trying to work things out with your spouse. Mitchell says, “You have to compromise.”
To do that, it’s helpful to understand the nature of the dispute. If the disagreement is based on monetary value, this can often be resolved by adjusting other assets to compensate. To get an idea for the value of an item, you can check eBay or Craiglist for their current sale price. While some things do increase in value, many household items depreciate so don’t be surprised when you see your items selling for substantially less than what you paid for them.
For higher value items or collector’s pieces, you might consider a professional appraiser. Whether this is cost effective depends on the value of the piece. If your attorney is involved in negotiations, then remember to include their fees in your cost-benefit analysis.
If the disagreement is based on sentimental value, you could consider whether a duplicate of the item is available or if you and your STBX could agree to share the item on a rotating basis.
Another approach is for you and your STBX to take turns in choosing an item from the disputed list – you get to pick an item first, then your STBX chooses and you alternate, working your way through the items.
Ultimately, if you did end up in court over the disputed item, absent a compelling reason from either of you, a judge is most likely to order the item to be sold and the net proceeds divided between you.
A third reason, people want to hold onto certain items is less about personal use and more because they see themselves as a custodian for the item for their kids to inherit a some point in the future. This may make it more palatable for the other party to relinquish the item and especially if there are caveats attached to the item that it can’t be sold, for example.
Disposing of Unwanted Items
It’s important to recognize that the unwanted items list still means work. Someone is still going to have to sell, donate or trash the items and that takes time, effort, and it could mean money.
Mitchell says that selling items is time-consuming. These days it involves posting the item online, responding to inquiries, meeting with potential buyers and making the sale. That’s all work that should be compensated so if you’re going to undertake selling an item make sure you agree with your STBX ahead of time, how to handle the proceeds. And, if you do make the sale, then there’s no disputing the sale price later.
If you decide that the likely sale proceeds aren’t worth the effort, then you can consider donating the items. My rule of thumb here is if you do the work to get the item out of the home, whether that means calling an organization for a pickup or dropping off the item at a collection point, then you get to take the tax deduction if there is one.
For items that you can’t sell or donate, they’ll need to be trashed and if there are fees associated with that, then be sure to agree upfront with your STBX how those fees are to be split. You might decide 50/50 is fair. You could also decide that the person who makes all the arrangements doesn’t have to pay because that’s their contribution to the project.
No matter whether the items are for keeps, donation or trash, you and your STBX need to agree a deadline by which all items will be dealt with. The deadline should be in writing, preferably as part of your legal agreement with your STBX. Setting a date however, isn’t enough. There also has to be the consequence for what will happen if the deadline is missed. For example, you might agree that your STBX will remove their belongings from the marital home by March 31. Then you would state that you have the right to dispose of any items belonging to STBX that remain in the home after that date as you see fit and that any expenses you incur in doing so will be reimbursed to you within 30 days of presentation of a receipt.
If you’re trying to set deadlines and your STBX is resistant, double-check what’s driving your deadlines. Are they tied to external events such as selling your house or the legal process or more because you want to get this done? If it’s the latter, then your STBX’s hesitation could be a sign that they are in denial and haven’t reaching the point of accepting that this is real. If you can back-off for a while, then you’ll give your STBX more time to adjust and that will help make the whole process go smoother.
Carrie Mitchell is the founder of TWS Inventory. Download their free eBook on how to inventory your home here.