What About the Stuff?

When people get divorced, they have to divide up property they accumulated during their life together. Houses, cars, bank accounts, investments and retirement benefits are all on the table to be shuffled, distributed, or sometimes divided. To be sure, for my divorce clients, I often spend a lot of time negotiating exactly how this should happen, but ultimately it does all come down to money, e.g., How much is the house worth vs. the 401(k)?

Not so with stuff.  Furniture, artwork (of the still-life-your-sister-painted-in-art-school variety, not the signed-Picasso-print variety), photographs, kitchen wares – the dreaded category of “personal property” can be the bane of the divorce lawyer’s existence.  Dividing up stuff is not about money; it’s totally about emotion.  People who have millions of dollars in investments can end up fighting over a piece of pottery someone picked up at a roadside market in Costa Rica. I try to avoid these negotiations like the plague.  I generally tell clients “I don’t do pots and pans” – meaning, work it out yourselves, because it’s a total waste of time and money to pay lawyers to argue about why one spouse should get the print of the lilies rather than the water color of the Cape Cod sunset; how are we supposed to know?

Don’t get me wrong, I do understand that stories and history and family culture are embodied in the stuff we acquire as the years pass, and sometimes lawyers can’t avoid getting involved.  If that happens, and if I start to feel irritated about it, I have developed a sure fire way to put a damper on my irritation and summon forth the empathy necessary to get the job done. I go straight to an example of stuff acquired during my own life that I would lie down in front of a truck for: my Christmas decorations! I love them.  I love acquiring a couple of beautiful new ornaments each year. I love the play dough, macaroni and glue Santas my son made in pre-school. I love the popsicle stick reindeer with the googly eyes he made in first grade.  I love the holiday candles and garlands I put on the mantle. Woe be to any person who wanted to take those treasures from me! So I get it. But I still hope fervently that my clients and their spouses can work out this part of their divorce for themselves.  I’m much more comfortable thinking through what to do with their stock options than their Kitchen Aid mixers. Remember…my job is to take the Drama OUT of your Soap Opera Situation.

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