It is well-recognized that we in America have a consumer culture. We buy and accumulate lots of stuff: cars, boats, sporting goods, collectibles, furniture, ad infinitum. Many of our neighbors, and perhaps you, dear reader, have so much stuff that it fills your garage, leaving you to park your vehicles out in the cold all winter. When couples get divorced, the division of their accumulated stuff can be a real issue.
First is the issue of whether it is marital or non-marital in nature. Was it acquired during the marriage (marital) and not inherited or gifted to just one party by someone else? Was it acquired prior to the marriage or was paid for from an asset held prior to the marriage, therefore, non-marital and requiring “tracing”? These can be complicated issues and not possible of brief explanation here.
Second, what is the current fair market value of the item, that is, the price a willing buyer will pay to a willing seller? Parties to a divorce will go so far as to pay hundreds of dollars to an appraiser for an opinion of value to submit as evidence at trial. However, there is an alternative that I have seen used as a lawyer and I am told some judges occasionally use: the bidding process.
Outside of court the parties and their lawyers meet and make an agreed-upon list of marital personal property to be divided. Then the fun begins. Let’s assume the first item is his 2008 Yamaha snowmobile:
Husband: It’s old and not worth more than $4,000.
Wife: I disagree. You paid $8,000 for it 2 years ago. It’s worth $7,500 at least.
Husband: No more than $5,000.
Lawyer A: OK, Ma’am, you are the high bidder. You get the snowmobile for $7,500.
Wife: But I don’t want the snowmobile!
Lawyer B: Well, now you understand how this is going to work. Next item, the Hummel collection…
Another alternative is for the parties to agree, or the judge to order, binding arbitration of the division of tangible personal property, i.e. all the stuff. Instead of having the judge determine the value and division of the stuff, an arbitrator is paid to decide this issue and the arbitrator’s decision is not appealable. This a less expensive alternative to taking that issue to trial.
The cost of a contested divorce is expensive enough without spending money needlessly. Agreeing on the division or value of one’s stuff saves lots of time, money and aggravation. Consider the alternatives. It’s in your court.
Judge Halsey is co-host with Judge Elizabeth Strand of “The District Court Show” on local cable tv systems in the Tenth Judicial District. Excerpts may be viewed at WWW.QCTV.org.