The comedian George Carlin made a reputation out of his epic routine talking about everyone’s “stuff” and how important it is to each of us. Carlin died in 2008, but his point is still alive and well today. While he doesn’t address it in his routine, keeping your “stuff” is never more relevant than in a divorce.
We all want our “stuff”. As Carlin says, we need a house to store our “stuff” so we can go out to “. . . GET MORE STUFF”! Well, in a divorce, the task is to split the “stuff”.
The reality that I have seen in my career is that this “stuff” accumulated by the parties over the duration of their marriage has more emotional impact than the house that holds it or the retirement benefits they have amassed to see them through their final years. From the Lenox China inherited from Grandma Bee and used religiously once a year at Thanksgiving to the Big Green Egg Barbeque cooker used in the backyard family get-togethers over the years, every piece of a divorcing couple “stuff” comes with a story. Dividing the “stuff” can be done systematically and logically. Separating the story from the “stuff” is what, in my opinion, makes this the most traumatic, emotional, and long-lasting bitter pill that they must endure.
To save yourself angst, time, money, and receive continual pats on the back from your legal team, do the following now:
1. Make a list of your “stuff”! Do a spreadsheet, take pictures, and make videos of all your “stuff”. Put down where and when you got it. Enter notes on each item of your “stuff”-include the story about that piece of “stuff” if there is one. In addition to your divorce case, a detailed list of your “stuff” can be invaluable in a homeowner’s insurance claim, taking IRS charitable deductions, and for letting your kids know what items of your “stuff” are valuable when you leave this planet. You can’t take your “stuff” with you.
2. Separate on your list anything that would be separate property. If you inherited it, had it before marriage, or received it as a gift, you own it. If you prove it as your separate property, the Judge has to let you keep that “stuff”. Pay special attention to “stuff” your spouse gave you. Your spouse, in the divorce, is going to claim that gift was an investment you both made and not a gift to you. Write down the occasion; find the card that came with the gift on your birthday, and write down the names of any witnesses that can back you up on the facts.
3. Get your “stuff” out of the residence. If you know you are going to file for divorce and your spouse doesn’t, before filing move the most important emotional “stuff” out of the house. If you are the one that will have to move out of the residence during the initial split, take any agreed “stuff” or any “stuff” ordered by the Court for you to have with you – right then. Don’t leave it for a later pick-up time! This rule is never to be broken if you want to keep your “stuff”. Leaving any of your “stuff” behind gives you a 90% chance you’ll never see it again. If you have to, rent a storage unit.
4. Put a value on it! Painful process – yes, it is necessary if you and your spouse can’t find a way to spit the household items between yourselves. Remember, the value under the law is fair market value – not what you paid for it.
5. Try to get an agreement on dividing your “stuff” with your soon-to-be Ex. If there is a place where you can save money on legal fees during your divorce, it’s right here. Unless you have a house full of antiques or rare collectibles, none of your “stuff” is going to be worth the cost of letting lawyers and courts divide it. You could almost furnish a brand new residence for what it will cost to let the judicial system split the “stuff” for you. Put aside the bitterness, rancor, sadness, and spite for a couple of hours and sit down with your spouse and divide all your “stuff” in a way that makes sense to both of you – sentimental attachments and all. Keep in mind, successfully splitting up “stuff” will require compromise.