Dividing Personal Property in Divorce: Don’t let a judge do it!

When you and your husband sit down to try to divide your personal property, it can feel like an epic power struggle. You feel very strongly that you should get to keep some thing or other but, unfortunately, he wants to keep it just as badly—or, at least, he wants to keep you from getting it at all. Drama ensues, and then your mind fixes on the garage full of fishing poles, golf clubs, and assorted power tools. You start to see dollar signs, and imagine how liberating it would be to have a garage sale and liquidate some of his most treasured possessions.

It’s only human, but it’s also counterproductive. It’s easy to fall into a trap of fighting over things that just aren’t worth fighting over and, if you can’t agree to division amongst yourselves, you’re going to have to let a judge decide. Normally, that’s not ideal. I’ve been in a courtroom and had a judge tell a married couple that, if they couldn’t decide how to divide the cars, he would have them sold at auction and split the proceeds. He knew they couldn’t get what the cars were worth at auction, but the judge didn’t have many other tools at his disposal to make sure that the allocation was fair. Judges don’t have time to go through and value every piece of property you own, from the air compressor to the rubber kitchen spatulas. It’s wasted time and, frankly, wasted money, because, while you wait for the judge to sort it out, both you and your husband are paying your separate attorney’s their hourly rate. And you also paid for the attorneys to prepare to discuss your personal property in court. Let me be the first to tell you: it’s a waste of time.

You are almost always better off to decide amongst yourselves how your property will be divided. It’s a good idea to spend more of your time on the items that are really significant. After all, you probably don’t really want his fishing poles anyway. Offer to make him a trade. He can keep his fishing poles in exchange for something that is important to you.

Remember that Virginia is an “equitable distribution” state. That means that the property that was accumulated during the marriage will be equitably divided between the two of you. Equitable means something kind of like fair. It means that the distribution is normally close to 50/50, but it doesn’t have to be.

It may be hard for you to come to an agreement about what to do with your personal property, but it is definitely in your best interest to try to figure it out yourselves. Keep in mind, too, that you only have to divide the things that you earned or purchased during the marriage. If either of you owned something prior to the marriage, or it was given to you by someone other than your husband during the marriage, it’s yours separately, and you don’t have to negotiate with him over those items.

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