In most dissolution cases, a host of assets and liabilities must be accounted for and divided. Homes, cars, boats, snowmobiles, retirement plans, business interests and other “big ticket” items are usually placed on a balance sheet and allocated among the parties, with the spouse receiving more value paying the other a cash equalizer. But what about “the stuff” in your home?

Truth be told, the Court wants nothing to do with dividing items of personal property of nominal value. If parties can’t agree on how to divide “the stuff” the judge will simply order everything auctioned and divide the sale proceeds. As you might expect, at auction you’ll receive perhaps ten cents on the dollar. We’re talking garage sale prices. Then, you, and your spouse, will have to turn right around and purchase another iron, toaster, DVD player and living room set. Makes little sense.

The good news is that there are tried and true processes that we have utilized in assisting couples through the division of “stuff.” Here’s what has worked for our clients:

  • Two Lists: One of you makes two lists of items, of roughly equal value. The lists are presented to the other. The person who didn’t draft the lists gets to pick which list they want. There is an incentive for the person drafting to fairly and equitably divide things or they’ll get burned during the selection process.
  • Silent Auction: This is my favorite. A master list of all of your personal property is created. Each party blindly puts a dollar value next to each item. The high bid takes the item at the value listed. Once all items are bid on, the totals for each party are added up. The party receiving the higher dollar value pays the other a cash equalizer to make up the other’s shortfall. Parties are free to place a high value on items they really want, but won’t list a ridiculous bid out of fear of paying a large offset.
  • Arbitration: An arbitrator is basically a private judge. You pay this person, usually a lawyer, to listen to your side of things in an informal conference setting. Then, your spouse does the same. The arbitrator is given the authority to divide the entire list of items as they deem fair and equitable. Costs are saved because the parties attend the arbitration without counsel and divide the arbitrator’s fee. Most couples submit to binding arbitration so that the decision of the arbitrator is final.
  • Rotating Lists: Make a master list and take turns going back and fourth until all of the personal property is divided. Flip a coin to see who goes first.

The bottom line is that usually the personal property of the parties isn’t worth the money that will be spent fighting over it. It’s true…we’ve been caught in the middle of disputes over Christmas ornaments, but not by choice. By the time all was said and done, both parties could have purchased a collection of new decor with the legal fees they would have saved by putting down the swords and agreeing to a process that would fairly, and cost-effectively, get the issue of personal property division resolved.