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The aggravation of equitably dividing household furnishings

Early in my career I spent an afternoon with two estranged spouses and a friendly opposing counsel auctioning the parties’ household furnishings to the highest bidder as the method of equitable distribution.  From this I developed two insights: 1) this is the fairest way to equitably divide household furnishings; and 2) this is an insane way to divide household furnishings.

The second insight occurred because I realized how much money the parties had spent on attorney’s fees fighting over household furnishings.  The attorneys, acting as auctioneers, were taking an extremely high commission as the parties fought over kitchen items and towels/linens. Given that many divorce cases now resolve in mediation, the parties are typically paying their own attorneys, and half the mediator’s fee, to divide household furnishings–increasing the “commission” further.

Nowadays, the advice I typically give my clients regarding dividing household furnishings begins with a serious of half-facetious questions above valuables: anyone own a Rolex?  Three caret diamonds? Any collectible coins, stamps, or Hummel figurines?  Antique furniture?  Picasso paintings?  If the answers to these questions are a series of no’s, I tell clients to figure it out with their spouse.  I further inform them that if they can’t figure it out with their spouse they should build a bonfire and burn the crap (I would likely use saltier language) and buy replacement crap (again, saltier language) on Craigslist.  It will be cheaper than paying two lawyers–or two lawyers and a mediator–to resolve it.

Despite this advice, it is a rare divorce mediation in which household furnishings don’t become an end-of-the-day issue.  Typically one spouse has left the marital home in a hurry and either didn’t bring everything he or she wanted (in which case that spouse will want more) or cleaned the house out (in which case the other spouse will want items returned).  If I have limited patience for household furnishing disputes in general, I have even less patience when evening approaches and the finish line of settlement is in view.  When this issue arises in mediation all one can do is ask the client to generate a list of what he or she wants.  If the client already has a written list we can spend a collective $750 to $1,000 per hour dividing household furnishings.  If the client has to “think about it” before providing a list (which, in hindsight, is almost always incomplete) the parties can spend that $750 to $1,000 per hour watching three attorneys do whatever those attorneys do when they have down time.

It is literally insane to pay two or three attorneys to resolve equitable division of household furnishings. It is even crazier to bring a dispute about possession of a sofa to a family court judge–whose time is frankly too valuable, and whose salary is paid by the taxpayers, to be considering such matters.  Sane human beings should be able to handle dividing household items themselves, even if they have to resort to kindergarten dispute resolution techniques such as taking turns or flipping coins.  But if they can’t, they’d be better of burning it than paying me to divide it.

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