At some point in the divorce process you and your soon-to-be ex ("STBX") are going to have decide how to divide your personal belongings. That’s everything from the gas grill on the patio, the power tools in the garage, the workout equipment in the basement, the kitchen gadgets to the kids’ toys and all your furniture.
I have met a few people who’ve decided to walk away from it all and a few who’ve moved out with just a handful of possessions, mostly from wanting to avoid any conflict but for most people it isn’t that simple.
Dividing up your possessions is messy, awkward and uncomfortable and it has to be done at a time when most of us are not thinking clearly or rationally. Even the simplest household item can trigger a flood of memories of a happy event or an angry outburst of indignation.
And yet it has to be done. Here are six simple steps to guide you.
1. Agree Who Will Do The Legwork
You and your STBX could walk through your home together deciding as you go, item by item but given the usual tensions, you’re more likely to agree to one of you creating the complete inventory or agreeing to divide the task so you each handle certain rooms or areas.
If you can’t agree on this, which can happen when there are restraining orders, time constraints or it’s a high-conflict situation, then you can use a neutral third party.
2. Create An Inventory
Go through each area of your home, create a listing of all the items that need to be divided. Consider using a spreadsheet because you will need to share this with your STBX and mark who will take which items. There are also home inventory apps you could use but before you start be sure that you’ll be able to get some sort of download so you will be able to update it.
Taking an inventory for divorce purposes is not the same as creating an inventory for insurance when it’s advisable to itemize and value everything. Here, it might suffice to list collections such as “Mandy’s clothes,” “scrapbooking materials,” or “video games.” This would usually apply to items that are not being divided. If you're going to divide the DVD collection then you will probably need to list them.
3. Identify You Each Want
Once you have your inventory, each of you will want to go through it and mark down the items you’d like. This is also the time to mark any items that you believe are non-marital property and as such belong to you and are not part of these negotiations. This might include items that you brought into the marriage, items you’ve received as part of an inheritance and items that were gifts.
Items you received as gifts from your STBX would generally be considered yours and don’t revert back to the giver. It can get tricky with gifts you received as a couple but Carrie Mitchell from TWS Home Inventory says generally if the gifts came from family members then a court would assign the property to the spouse whose family the gift came from.
As you go through the list try not to think about the relative value of items – focus more on whether you have a need for the item going forward. Will it fit where you will be living? Is it something you will use? Is it something you actually like?
4. Handle The Items On Which You Both Agree
The items that you both agree on are the easy ones. Of the ones you want to keep, agree when each of you is going to take possession. This is an important part of the discussion. If you skip over this step you could end up feeling you’re storing the items your STBX indefinitely. I would also tell you to agree the consequences for not taking possession by a certain date such as giving you the authority to dispose of uncollected items.
5. Handle The Items No One Wants
For the items that neither of you want, the question is, sell, trash or donate? And again, go the next step and agree who’s going to take the responsibility for getting it done and by when. If the items are going to be sold then you also have to agree what will happen to the proceeds, remembering that whoever does work, should be compensated for time and effort.
Similarly, you may want to track the value of donated items if you’re able to deduct them on your tax return.
6. Negotiate The Disputed Items
Now you've come to the nitty gritty but hopefully the list of items that you both want is small. The key here is in understanding the reason for the dispute.
If the dispute is value-driven, as in the item originally cost X dollars and is worth more than other items, you could discuss compensating the other person with other assets that would balance out the value.
If the dispute is attachment driven, such as the area rug or a piece of artwork, then could you buy a duplicate from marital assets so you can both have one? Alternatively could you agree some sort of sharing schedule.
Another way to handle these items is to simply take turns in selecting an item from the list or for you each to prioritize your selections.
Now if you’ve tried everything and there are still items you both want, it’s often helpful to understand how a court might rule if you ended up going to trial. Here the odds are strongly stacked to the court ordering the item to be sold and the proceeds being split. So how would you feel if the item was sold? If you get the sense that your STBX is wanting the item to stop you from having it, you’ll be feeding into their control by fighting for it. What would it take for you to walk away?
What to know more about dividing your personal assets? Listen to Mandy interview Carrie Mitchell of TWS Home Inventory on the Conversations About Divorce radio show, Dividing Up Your Personal Assets – Is There A Painless Way?