When it All Comes Down to the Blender: The Value of Personal Property in Divorce
Personal property, furnishings and personality are typically encompassed by the objects that reside in marital (and secondary) residences. Included in this group are furniture and tchotchkes, like that horrible thing from HomeGoods that seemed like such a good idea at the time, but now takes up half the dining room table.
Property (as distinct from real property, which refers to land, homestead, and so forth) includes antiques that could be museum quality, and the old sofa in the basement. Some of it has real meaning to you, and some of it, no offense, has got to go!
Oftentimes, the property comprises the least valuable portion (monetary) of the marital estate. However, it can still be a subject of contention and fierce assertions of ownership in high-conflict cases. Clients can spend tens of thousands of dollars arguing over something that has less than a fraction of that value.
Usually, a settlement agreement will simply state: “The clients will divide the personal property to their mutual satisfaction within 30 days of the execution of this agreement,” or something similar. Entrenched arguments over personal property typically indicate underlying conflict in the case, rather than the monetary or intrinsic value of the objects themselves.
So, “when it all comes down to the blender,” what might be helpful for people struggling with dividing personal property?
It can be useful to do a bit of self inquiry without inviting any judgment. You might ask: What is my relationship to this particular object? What feelings come to me when I am with it? Sometimes, it is a sense of comfort, continuum, as with the blue ceramic pitcher one woman had since college.
Different objects bring different things out in us. They have different significance, and that is often well beneath and beyond what the object actually is. In evaluating things, it can be helpful to ask questions such as:
- Is there inherent utility?
- Is there a dollar value to replace this that makes me attached to it by necessity? (I can’t buy two more sofas at this point based on my divorce settlement.)
- Is this something that I’m actually going to want and maybe want my children to have one day?
- Is this an object I might be able to use for another 5, 10, 15 years?
- Is this something that is going to cost me $500 to get it hauled away to a dumpster within six months?
- What is the future life of this thing and how does it impact my life, environment and economic future?
- Would a picture of it suffice, perhaps as a screensaver, or is the three dimensional object needed for it to have value?
Some objects may really be worth their weight in gold; most of them are just heavy and hurt your back when lifted.
Try orienting yourself with a vision of what you want your post-divorce space to be and how you want to be in it.
- What things are needed to populate this space so that it supports you and your family? There is a need to have a table in the kitchen; there’s a need to have a mattress in the bedroom. These are things that obviously respond to our actual needs.
- Is this something that is replaceable at the mattress store? If we are unable to decide who gets the bed, is there a monetary amount I would take or pay that would make it okay either way? Offsetting objects with a dollar value can help equalize the division of property.
- The cost of relocating a piece of furniture or storing it for several months versus replacing it;
- The value of leaving certain things as they are, so as to not disrupt a familiar household that provides consistency for children;
- The expense of maintaining a given object, and the possible freedom of not having it in one’s custody.
Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar — though no true Freudian believes that — and neither does anyone in the throes of property division in an acrimonious divorce.
What, too, is the value of not having the object? There is a value to a certain kind of spaciousness and freedom from too many things, too much encumbrance. It’s lovely to be in an uncluttered space. It’s delightful to have a few chosen pieces rather than a bunch of junk from the dollar store. It can also be a pleasure to take time to decide what a particular space wants and to find that “just right” piece that belongs.
Perhaps this is the time to rediscover your own aesthetic. To freshly choose those things that support an environment that is reflective of you.
So much of life is implied in what we hold and what we let go. Be thoughtful and kind to yourself, one another, and your things, as you transition into new habitats and new belongings.
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