Personal possessions (or ‘chattels’) are sometimes a tricky subject when it comes to dividing up assets in divorce or separation – after all, how do you put a figure on something that has sentimental value? Chattels includes everything inside your home, along with vehicles and even pets! Essentially, anything other than property and financial assets.
During divorce, a couple’s main concern is usually where they’re going to live, what they’re going to do with any shared property, how to manage and divide their finances, and the future care of any children. Personal possessions are often fairly low on the list, but ironically sometimes it’s the little squabbles over individual items that ends up extending the duration of the process. Small disagreements over significant (or sometimes entirely random) possessions can become symbolic of the relationship as a whole – or a tangible way to ‘get back at’ one another – and couples will fight tooth and claw over a tattered old armchair when they really ought to be focusing on finalising their divorce and getting on with their lives.
The problem is, it can be difficult to accurately value personal possessions, particularly where they have emotional or sentimental value. There’s also the issue of one spouse moving out and suddenly having to furnish a brand new home from scratch, or both of you moving into new places and having to divide everything up – who gets what, and how do you decide?
Firstly, think practically. Focus on what you will both need in your new living situations. If one of you is staying put and the other is moving out, you may decide to leave everything in the family home and deduct the value of the furnishings from the home-dwelling spouse’s portion of assets, or you may divide up certain chattels to make things as fair as possible from the off – eg: one of you takes the furniture, one of you takes the white goods. Either way, it’s a good idea to start by making a list of all the possessions in your home, from room to room, and deciding on which decisions should take highest priority.
If you have children, consider their need for familiarity as well as their practical requirements. It’s best to keep the family home as ‘normal’ as possible to help them through the transition, but it’s also nice for them to have some familiar things in their second home, too. And if your children are spending time in two separate homes, you will need to consider how you will be dividing the cost of any furniture and items.
Next, mark off items that clearly belong to one person only – e.g: possessions that were owned individually before the marriage. Even if an item was bought and owned/used by one spouse during the marriage, it still counts towards the joint pot because it was purchased after the relationship commenced. Solely-owned items might be along the lines of gifts from family members or a piece of furniture bought by one spouse before moving in together. Once again, go through your list, room by room, and start to narrow down the assets to be divided.
Finally, make a note of any remaining unclaimed chattels and try to come to an agreement over their financial value, their sentimental value, and a fair way to distribute them between you. What is important to one spouse may be worthless to another, and there will never be a perfectly equal way to divide things up, but there comes a point where a decision must be made so you can both move forward. Try not to get bogged down in petty arguments here, and try to separate yourself from the emotional side of things for a minute. Does it really matter if your spouse takes the pots and pans? Or are you disagreeing because you’re feeling overwhelmed by the upheaval and want to lash out? If you can’t make a mutually agreeable decision, take a cooling off period, consult with your solicitors for some practical advice, and try again when things have calmed down a bit.
Where it becomes really difficult is when a couple share a pet, but that’s an entirely separate and complex subject – so much so we wrote a whole article about it! And if a couple really can’t come to a decision on their own, or with the advice of their solicitors or an objective third party like a mediator, they may need to take their case to the courts. However, asking a judge to make a decision over minor chattels is likely to result in a costly hearing in which you relinquish control over who gets what. In some cases, the court may rule that the whole lot is sold and the proceeds are divided between you, so it’s far better to try to come to a mutual agreement out of court if possible. Cooperative methods of dispute resolution such as mediation, arbitration, or collaborative family law are excellent ways to minimise arguments over the division of assets – particularly when there are children involved – helping you work together to come up with a fair, reasonable plan for the future.
Ultimately, the division of possessions is a delicate, and very personal balancing act, and should be based on the practical and financial needs of each spouse. This is not the time to be nitpicking over crockery or bickering about soft furnishings. Instead, make a methodical list of everything to be divided, work through it as collaboratively as possible, and, if necessary, seek advice from your solicitor or a mediator to help you make final decisions.
For more advice on divorce, dividing up assets, and cooperative approaches to separation, visit www.franceslindsay.co.uk or get in touch with our experienced team of family law solicitors for a free 45-minute consultation.dividing assets, divorce, separation