When separating or divorcing, it can be overwhelming to think of all of the decisions that have to be made. One of the very first decisions is often that of one spouse or parent moving out of the family home. When considering this move, separating couples can be stumped trying to figure out what stays and what will go with the moving-out spouse. Here’s some ideas to help with this chore.
What’s included in “household contents”?
Most people when they think of household goods will think of items on the inside of their house – for instance,
- Kitchen items
- Bedroom contents
- Living room furniture
- Wall art
But it can also include appliances, things in a garage or out-building, sheds, tools, lawn equipment, decorative ornaments, and other items
In a separation or divorce, when we’re looking at dividing household contents, it typically refers to items that will be lumped together and divided between parties.
When should household items be divided?
Families can divide their household contents anytime – either before or after someone moves out – there’s usually 2 steps to any division.
First, there’s planning for the division, and second, there’s the actual physical division when one person moves out of the family home.
There’s no magic to when this 2nd step occurs. The best practice, though, would be for separating spouses to have a discussion about how to divide the household contents prior to anyone physically moving anything out of the home.
Sometimes it may be that one person moves out with minimal personal belongings, and doesn’t need much for the first few weeks, which is fine, except that it’s important to return to make this list as soon as practicable so that the contents stay whole when the official list is made.
To be clear, if one spouse does move out without the division of household contents being complete, that doesn’t mean that they lose any entitlement to dividing this in the future. It can just make it a little more difficult to do it once items have been physically moved around.
Let’s get into the how-to
Create a Master List – go through your entire house and list everything in each room. Click here for a sample spreadsheet to help you go through the house.
Note any items that you both agree are “exempt” from division – e.g. if you both agree that the items were received as a gift or if they belonged to one of you prior to the relationship
Value the items – this would be how much an item would sell for based on its age and condition. This is not replacement value. Some people will look up values online, or just estimate.
If you and your spouse can do this together, you can discuss the value for each item as you go through the house together, or you may each need to come up with a value on your own and compare after.
Pick who will keep what – there are many ways to go about the actual picking of items. First, each person can mark down the items they’d ideally like to keep.
Next, problem-solve any items that overlap that both of you want to keep – here’s a few ideas:
- Alternate picking: Go through this overlapping list together and each pick one item on an alternating basis
- Divide the list, pick a pile: Have one spouse take this list and divide it into two lists of equal value, with the items randomly selected. The other spouse then gets to pick which list they want, or divide the list into two piles together, then flip a coin as to who gets which pile.
- Do a draft (think hockey) – flip a coin to see who starts, then go back & forth on selecting something you want, continue until list done
- Silent Auction – select an item, each of you bid on that item silently, person with highest bid keeps the item
Equalize between spouses – once each spouse has their list, then next we need to determine how balanced each list is. Some say “a couch for a couch” and feel that’s satisfactory, others determine equality based on value.
The legislation always looks to division based on value, not based on number of items. If there is an inequality, then spouses can either equalize with cash or move some items to the other list to be more equal.
If you can’t agree on the value, here’s a few ideas to help:
- Use common sense (already tried that? go to the next idea)
- Average – each submit a value, take an average between the values
- Get an appraisal
- Online valuation – look up comparables on the market, or you can plug in a description of your item on some sites and it will estimate the value for you.
What if spouses don’t want to value or list everything?
Lots of families who come to me don’t want to get their divorce professional involved in dividing their household contents – item by item it seems like “nickel & diming”, but in fact once you have the whole list together it can add up to a lot of value.
If both spouses agree that they have satisfactorily divided their household contents on their own without the need for my assistance, then provided that they believe that it was roughly equal, typically I won’t get involved in the listing, valuing, and picking.
The key for me is to know whether there was a disparity in value as to who kept what items so that we can account for that in the rest of the division of assets and debts.
Let’s pick out a few categories that you may relate to:
Wedding gifts – these will be gifts to both of you, and so they are divisible as part of your divorce. However, very often spouses will decide that it’s the person who is closer with the gift giver that will keep the gift. These still need to be added to the list and be valued. My point is simply relating to who would naturally keep these gifts.
Sentimental items like photos – it used to be that the family albums would have to be split. It may still be the case for families who have non-digital photo albums. Naturally each spouse would keep their own childhood photo albums. For most families nowadays, pictures are digitally stored, and any albums are often printed from a printing service. Families may want to consider whether to have a 2nd copy made of any printed photo albums. If photos are simply stored digitally, consider making a copy of all photos for the other spouse. There are external hard drives that could accommodate these types of file sharing. Some high tech parents will even share a cloud drive and put all kid photos on this shared drive so that both parents can access the photos at any time.
Kids’ items – you’ll be wanting to set up the children in each of your homes comfortably. Where the children’s furniture, toys, and other items end up may depend on your parenting schedule. If the children spend a significant amount of time in each of your homes, then you may want to divide the familiar stuff as equally as possible so the children feel at home in both places. Otherwise, it may make more sense to leave the main items in one parent’s home if they have the children most of the time. There may be things that travel with them at each exchange between homes.
Personal belongings – it is usually assumed as to the items that each spouse would consider to be their “personal belongings”. These are things like clothing, toiletries, shoes, home office items, etc. These are items that each spouse will usually consider to be a given that they would retain in a division of household contents. These technically need to be listed and valued, but they are usually given priority to that spouse.