People often become paralyzed when it comes to dividing their personal property (household furniture, furnishings, sentimental items such as wedding gifts, photos, children's artwork, etc.). It is certainly one of the harder issues to contend with for families that are separating their homes because often there is much emotion attached to items accumulated during the course of a relationship.
While there are many ways to divide these items, if it is possible and manageable for them, it may be in their best interest both emotionally and financially to try to find a way to divide these items themselves rather than pay their professionals to become involved. I have seen many families navigate these issues constructively and thoughtfully when given a structure that works for them.
People often find the issue of how to value items challenging as well. It is often very difficult to put an economic value on emotional attachments. From a legal perspective, the value is generally thought to be what they could reasonably expect to get for an item at a garage sale or on Craig's List.
The first step for couples is often to create a comprehensive inventory of the items that need to be discussed and divided. Sometimes these lists can be created together. In the alternative, each person can create their own list. If one person has been out of the family residence for a period to time, they may need to go into the residence to refresh their memory in order to create their inventory. It is also helpful to identify items that either person may feel are their "separate property" (either owned prior to the relationship or gifted during the relationship). Also, if each person can identity the items they wish to retain and the items they do not wish to retain, often this can reduce the items that require discussion.
As to any items that require discussion, if after thoughtful discussion an agreement cannot be reached, when all else fails, a tried and true method that people can utilize is alternating selection until all items have been allocated. There are also creative ways to address some of the more emotional issues. For example, parents can create a sharing agreement that allows them to retain certain sentimental items related to their children with an agreement that the items "belong" to the children and will be returned to the children at some point. Photos, videos and artwork are also often a difficult issue. Today there are many ways to copy such items so that each person can retain copies of these items. At the end of the day your "stuff" is an important part of a separation or dissolution and should be treated thoughtfully.
Lissa Rapoport is a consensual dispute resolution attorney with offices in San Francisco and San Rafael.
Photo credit: Ann Buscho, PhD.