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Dividing Stuff

In divorce, couples are confronted with the creation of two new households.  Furnishing a new household is not a simple or inexpensive undertaking.  The replacement of major items such as televisions and sound systems is obviously an expensive assignment, but dishes, appliances, towels, sheets, silverware and the rest of the stuff that makes a house a livable home is no small deal.

Some couples evidence little trouble or concern with dividing their belongings. “No big deal,” they say. “ We will have no trouble with this task; you can consider it done,” they tell their mediator.

For many couples the task of dividing up possessions is difficult.

  • Do we value everything and then create two homes, each holding fifty percent of the value of the former home? 
  • Do we consider replacement value or actual value of our belongings? The dining room set that cost $5000 ten years ago, would never fetch anywhere near that price today; yet, to replace it would probably cost far more that the original price. 
  • How do we define “fair”?
  • How do we approach items that were gifted from family and friends, even from one spouse to the other? 
  • Similarly how do we handle antiques and other items of increased value—art, rugs, collectibles or jewelry?
  • What about items that either of us inherited?  Do we each keep what came from our family or friends?  What if the item or items were given to both of us?  What if one likes the item from the other’s family more than the recipient? 


The questions can multiply with little effort.
Ironically many couples evince more emotional ties to “stuff” than they do to the major assets of retirement funds and real estate.  Each piece has a history, a place where it was purchased or a situation that surrounded its origination. For example, a family member purchased it for one of the spouses for his/her 21st birthday or the purchase was made from dollars saved over many years—a real sacrifice. There are memories surrounding the painting or the table or the piece of jewelry –and memories linger and take on a larger meaning when an individual is asked to put aside feelings and view an item as only an item, maybe even only as its dollar value.

So, the question arises, how do couples who are beset by these deep and troubling questions actually divide their belongings, how do they create two households from one?

There is really no one perfect solution, no one-way that fits all families.  There are, however, some guidelines to follow:

• Try to accept the objective of creating two functional homes in which each party will have to purchase replacement items.  Typically, but, of course, not always, one spouse does not want to retain the household items “as is” if he or she has to pay the other for their half, unless the sum to be paid is nominal.  The party retaining the household possessions often will argue that he or she is keeping the “old stuff” and paying the other one to purchase new stuff.  Moreover, the debate over the value, the replacement or original cost saga, is never easy to resolve.

• Identify items that have significant meaning to each spouse and try in the apportionment of items to have them stay with that party (if of major value, balancing the division such that the other party receives something of comparable value may be necessary)

• Decide if items from each party’s family and friends should stay with that party (If either person does not really have a tie to the item, this may not be important in determining the actual division.)

• Consider where each spouse will be living.  Will he or she have a house with a dining room? If not, they will not need the dining room set. Or perhaps one party will keep an item or items for the other until he or she has a home that will accommodate the item or items.  It is not unusual for one spouse to store and use items, which will ultimately belong to the other.

• Consider if the discrepancy in value should be balanced or not.  At times people use differences in other belongings to balance a perceived or actual imbalance in the division of household possessions.  A car or boat is a common item used to effect a division that both parties feel balances the scales.

In order to undertake the division of household possessions, some couples walk through their home together and make lists of what is important to each one as the starting point.  The balancing, in whatever way they agree is fair, takes place after the identification of the “items of importance.”  Others make lists of each room and its contents and/or take pictures.  Possessions held in kitchens, basements, and garages are often divided in each room separately.  For example, in the kitchen, sets of dishes and silverware may be divvied up in order for each one to have a working kitchen.

Typically the mediator works with the couple to fashion a process that will help them to divide their household possessions rather than to partake (participate?) in the actual division.  Rarely are appraisals undertaken for entire households of belongings unless the couple is truly unable to reach a division that seems equitable to both or the items are of such significance that appraisals are mandatory.  More commonly, where appraisals are undertaken, they relate to individual items or collections of items.  Art, rugs, jewelry, collections, antiques are among the items that may require appraisals.  At times a couple agrees to divvy up valuables without consideration for value and agrees that each one will bequeath the items to the children, thereby preventing either from selling the valuable.  Or, if the item is to be sold, then the proceeds will be equally shared. 

The “trick” to working through a division of “stuff” lies in thinking creatively and, too, thinking of each other’s feelings as well as the bottom line dollar value.


Lynne Halem

Dr. Lynne C. Halem is the director at the Centre for Mediation & Dispute Resolution in Wellesley, MA. Dr. Halem has worked in the mediation field since 1982. She is on the Family Dispute Service Panel of the American Arbitration Association and a past board member of the Divorce Center,… MORE

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