Around the table blog

Around the Table

Levitt Family Law & Mediation’s Blog

A Deeper Dive into the Meaning of Personal Property in Divorce: Considerations in Dividing Personal Property

by | Mar 4, 2024 | Divorce

In January 2022, I posted a blog entitled “The Table: What’s on It and What’s Under It – The Division of Personal Property in Divorce”. In it, I described my own personal experience in having to part with something that had meaning to me. That experience gave me a greater understanding of how clients might feel when having to divide their personal property upon the end of their relationship.

Defining Possessions

I had the opportunity to explore this further with psychologist Gina Arons, Psy.D, in a presentation we did together entitled “Possessed by Possessions” that we gave to a group of Collaborative Law professionals. We first explored the concept of “possessions”, which can have different meanings to different people. Possessions can be a wedding gift, items owned before marriage or that were given to a party by friends or family, things jointly acquired, items believed to be meaningful to children that a party wishes to keep (even when a party is not sure the children will ever want those items but wants to “save”  for the children), and more. 

The concept of possessions can also take many different forms, possessions are not just physical – they can have monetary value, psychological value, symbolize an emotion relating to the marriage or its downfall, and may even be non-physical such as a talent or skill one party wants to continue to have from the other party such as handyman skills or financial acumen.

The Emotional Ties

When dividing possessions, parties can get into a tug-of-war – emotions can come into play, such as each party’s sense of “fairness”, the need to hurt the other by asking for something you know they want, guilt or shame, or just the difficulty in letting go described in the previous blog referenced above.

When dividing personal property, recognizing these different layers can provide each party not just with some self-reflection about the true meaning of a “possession”, but some understanding of the meaning to the other party. Finding a process to then divide personal property in a way that feels comfortable to both parties is important – asking questions about each party’s assumptions in advance of any discussion of personal property including what’s both “on” and “under” the table can avoid conflict and misunderstandings.

I recall a case many years ago in a long term marriage where after long negotiations the parties settled everything and were about to go into the courtroom to submit their divorce agreement for approval – until the husband asked the wife for the engagement ring back. The husband’s request for that possession to be returned, which the wife saw as coming from a desire to hurt her, undermined the entire agreement. The ring was not just of monetary value; it had psychological value as well, because it had been a gift to her upon the promise of a lifelong marriage that ultimately unraveled, it was an item she wanted to keep for their children, and taking back a “gift” which had many layers of meaning felt punitive at the very time she thought they had finally reached mutual agreement.

Taking the “Personal” (and Emotional) out of the Property

Parties have various options for dividing personal property. Many parties are able to do it on their own informally and do not need the assistance of professionals. However, when clients do need help, they can do walk-throughs, put values on items, make lists, do appraisals, or just do a coin toss if there are items that remain in dispute. To avoid the circumstance in the case where the engagement ring undermined an otherwise agreed upon resolution that the parties had come to after substantial settlement negotiations, talking about personal property up front is critical. Finding out early on in the case what each party’s expectations are about how to deal with personal property, and then addressing those expectations by confirming the process by which personal property will be divided, can avoid a lot of heartache and disagreement. 

The Path Forward

Out of court dispute resolution can be a positive way to address the division of personal property, giving the parties the opportunity to identify personal property division issues, and the ability to control how they want to resolve their differences. It can also be a less expensive and more efficient way to address personal property division avoiding conflict and extensive legal fees around items that often have no great monetary value but other value and meaning.

Don’t be “possessed by possessions” – find rational and reasonable ways out of court to divide personal property.

Contact us to discuss your family law matter and learn more about mediation, Collaborative Law or settlement counsel.