Best practices for divorce household asset inventory?
May 10, 2014 8:04 PM   Subscribe

We're divorcing and in a common property state. I am quite certain that my ex is going to be unhappy once they realizes that household items will be divided equitably. How can we best do this?

My lawyer says to tally everything up, assess its "garage sale/craigslist value," and then things will be divided equitably with the mediator present. I am fairly certain ex is going to feel that "their ipad/sunglasses" shouldn't be counted even though it was purchased while we were together and thus is household common property.

Ex owns significantly more things than I do and I fear that if we don't itemize down to this level that I will lose out. Ex will not count their ipads, gadgets, computers, sunglasses, clothing - all bought during the relationship - and then we will be splitting pots and pans without acknowledging the tens of thousands spent on toys. I promise that I am not being petty here. I can barely afford to replace furniture and a few thousand here or there will matter.

My strategy is to emphasize that I'm not taking their stuff and that my expensive boots and bike are going to be valued just like their ipad and the goal is that we both depart equitably.

I'm looking for suggestions on how to practically do this. (My beginning idea - shared google spreadsheet, we just go room-by-room and write down what is in it.) But is there a way to assess garage sale value easily? Is doing this together a bad idea? Maybe we do some thing together and then do our own clothing and personal items separately for privacy?

Additional facts: ex has not yet secured a lawyer, I have one; we will be seeing a mediator, but I know that this asset inventory will be sticky. I will not be going after any retirement funds or investments. House and car are still up for negotiation.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (18 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I wouldn't even address it. Put the spreadsheet together, set up a mutually agreeable time for the mediator to come over, and if they act surprised/shocked to find things on the spreadsheet at that point simply say "We're putting everything acquired during our marriage on the list." Don't elaborate, don't get fancy.

If s/he pulls further shenanigans over this point out that you'd really prefer to resolve this amicably, but if you can't a judge might consider this an attempt to hide assets and s/he could be held liable for your costs and your attorney costs trying to do a census of the assets.
posted by arnicae at 8:10 PM on May 10, 2014 [4 favorites]

In my case we itemized all items worth $200 or more and skipped anything under that amount. Even if that meant I ended up with an fairly empty house, a couch, tv and one or two pots, my sanity was worth more than arguing over a pair of sunglasses or plates. I figured the sooner we get over the divison of assets part, the sooner we can start the divorce process and focus on moving on.

Ikea is affordable enough that you can replace stuff for cheap within 6 months. I saved up and replaced most basic necessities within a half a year.

A divorce is too emotionally draining to worry over non-vital things that can be replaced. If you don't need it for immediate survival (eat, safety and sleep) let him have it if he wants it.

Be kind to yourself and stay strong. Take it one day at a time.
posted by Karotz at 8:15 PM on May 10, 2014 [15 favorites]

Do a video inventory of EVERYTHING, preferably with a witness. DO IT NOW, because suddenly the ipads etc may just disappear, or will be "broken" and "thrown out". And why wouldn't you want your fair share of the retirement and investments?
It's also VERY difficult to get a realistic craigslist/garage sale value without actually selling the stuff. From recent experience, half the stuff we thought would sell didn't, and the other half sold for half what we thought was a fair price.
posted by Sophont at 8:52 PM on May 10, 2014 [8 favorites]

Why are you going after this stuff and not retirement funds and investments? It seems high-conflict and a bit like small change compared to something as important as retirement. We just guessed, in fact, and agreed on a number that sounded good.

Make sure you don't get screwed because you want to get back at them for spending money on stuff you disliked. Spend your negotiating energy on the big stuff.
posted by the young rope-rider at 8:54 PM on May 10, 2014 [22 favorites]

But is there a way to assess garage sale value easily?

Yes. You search eBay for the particular item and filter results by completed/sold items only. Pick the top item's value, or average the top three, etc.

Is doing this together a bad idea?

Only you or someone who knows you both very well can answer this. One couple can do it easily and finish the house in a day. For another couple, a roomful of items is a roomful of arguments. The kitchen alone will take a week if you allot for time-outs. In my experience, more divorcing couples fall toward the latter end of the spectrum than the former. That's not an indictment of the people themselves; divorce is taxing emotionally. Answer this question for yourself, but answer it honestly, not just optimistically.

I promise that I am not being petty here. I can barely afford to replace furniture and a few thousand here or there will matter.

I hear you, but it isn't about being petty. It's about valuing your time and preserving your sanity—or less melodramatically, your emotional well-being. Generally speaking, whether a jurisdiction is a "common property state" is only one factor in the jumble. You should also take a breath and ask yourself whether pursuing equal division of assets is a worthwhile goal...and how strictly equal, and how worthwhile. There can be flexibility in each of those. Sit down with a pen and paper and quantify them for yourself. When you say it will "matter," what do you really mean by that? What does the worst-case scenario look like?

Approaching your question from a different angle: don't worry about whether your ex is "unhappy." That is no longer your concern. Consider relying on the flat excuse, "This is what my lawyer told me to do." [Obviously this is not legal advice, and I'm presuming you are doing and will do what your lawyer counsels you to do. Good luck.]
posted by cribcage at 8:59 PM on May 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

There's got to be someone you can hire to come in and do this valuation for you. For example, household insurance adjusters, or estate auctioneers would have the skills to walk around a house and give a ballpark figure that maybe both of you would agree on. I bet you could find an underemployed person with the right sort of background who would do this for an hourly rate. If you can both contact the person to query the details if necessary, or maybe if you are both present while the person is calculating the amount, there shouldn't be too much debate about it. You could even get several people to estimate it for you and see if you get similar numbers. (And I think you probably would: I was really surprised when I recently got three separate quotes from insurance companies who sent reps to walk around my house and estimate replacement value of everything, because they were all within about 5% of each other's totals.)
posted by lollusc at 9:14 PM on May 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

"My lawyer said to make a list of all the items we or either one of us got while we were married."

Something like that will say, this is what I'm doing and gives you an answer to "why" that you can lean on to not negotiate, I suspect.

You should also ask your lawyer for strategy tips for this issue.

You should also heed the young rope-rider's advice. It doesn't matter if he gets you for $5k in iPod/plasma TV value nearly as much as if he gets for you for $90k in retirement account/house value.
posted by J. Wilson at 9:37 PM on May 10, 2014 [8 favorites]

Gadgets will be worthless in five years.

Investments will be worth potentially many times current value in ten, twenty, thirty years.
posted by dhartung at 11:22 PM on May 10, 2014 [6 favorites]

I tend to agree with others that inventorying all the small stuff seems almost certain to add unnecessary stress to something that's already going to be hard. That said, if you feel you must, then maybe come up with a rough valuation however you can and barter this value against some thing or things that are important to you. That way you can get all of your bike, both your boots and maybe some furniture and/or something else you really need.

And, for Pete's sake, the retirement funds and investments are yours too and they're much more important for your future than consumer goods.

I suggest you put your energy into making sure you get your share of the things that count.
posted by mewsic at 3:17 AM on May 11, 2014 [4 favorites]

I live in a community property state. I've heard friend-of-friend tales of couples putting everything in a pile, and the judge having the parties take turns taking one item at a time out of the pile.

Another story I've heard is auctioning each item to the parties, and having a cash settlement at the end.
posted by Hatashran at 6:39 AM on May 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

The house and retirement funds are big issues. The rest small change, though with some sentimental value, which finally is worth? peanuts after you split.
posted by Postroad at 7:06 AM on May 11, 2014 [4 favorites]

Is there some reason you are not going after retirement and investments? I'm assuming maybe so, since you have a lawyer, but it still doesn't sound right to me.

That other stuff may have cost a lot at the time but it is worth very little now. Assessing it is really time consuming. If you're going to do it at all, I'd say, cut down on time spent and identify the more valuable/costly to replace items. Then if anyone gets more, they give the other one some cash. (Like if one person takes the only really good computer, the other gets a bit of money towards a new one.) Then take turns picking the other stuff; don't bother appraising it. My family has done this twice in dividing up estates.There was an actual list of professionally appraised stuff and the estate made it up in cash to anyone who got items that were worth less.

Alternatively, sell ALL the stuff in a garage sale or whatever and split the money.
posted by BibiRose at 7:33 AM on May 11, 2014

I strongly recommend you get your fair share of retirement assets. It's just fair. If you don't, your ex- should just give you all but a few personal items of household stuff.
posted by theora55 at 7:34 AM on May 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

Just to point out--there may be valid financial or strategic reasons the OP is not looking to get to the house or retirement funds (such as a personal asset to be protected or a larger retirement fund to be protected or the like)--assuming the OP has a reasonably experienced attorney, she should follow that advice with regard to the big stuff.

My professional experience with divorce does not include household inventories, but I agree with the advice of simply setting up the room by room spreadsheets and beginning to fill them in. It goes faster with help, but if you're not getting it, you're not going to get it.

I also agree with the above advice to set a dollar amount and not bother with items below that dollar amount. For each room, I'd start with the bare list of everything above your dollar value. For all items in the room below the dollar value individually, you add a line such as "four sets of bed linens" and if you get to needing a dollar value, you assign something like "no set worth more than $80 new". For anything in the room with no literal value, but personal or emotional value, you note that as well: "six framed photos from Person's college photography class". It sounds exhausting to me, so I would start with the "important" rooms--that is the rooms which have the things you are most likely to want or need or have the value which should be accounted for, ensuring that any family heirlooms or really meaningful pieces of furniture get into the inventory with a note that it was your heirloom. Protect yourself by starting the process with or without your former-spouse's help, but don't bury yourself in the minutiae.

Later you can start filling in approximate purchase date and approximate value. Include gadgets (laptops, tablets, e-readers, phones) in the inventory of the room where the charger is generally kept, just for your purposes of keeping it simple.

My personal experience with divorce suggests that at some point the emotional need to move on trumps the small accounting, assuming you're in the reasonably stable financial position of having a steady middle class income. It'll suck but if it honestly will just set you back for a short time--instead of breaking you--having to refurnish your house over three years, instead if immediately can be less emotionally taxing than trying to enforce your settlement that gives you the $500 couch and $500 vacuum. Obviously, your mileage may vary but consider it.
posted by crush-onastick at 7:49 AM on May 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

Just my experience, but...when I divorced my ex ended up with the vast majority of household junk. It was circumstantial more than planned but I was still bummed.

Fast forward to years later and I will be at her house for whatever reason (we have an awesome daughter together) and I will see some random spatula or picture or end table or something that we had years ago and I will giggle with glee that I don't have any of that crap and it's associated dumb memories.
posted by ian1977 at 8:04 AM on May 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

If you're in California, the law only cares about total equal value, not equal amounts of stuff.

"All that the law requires is that the net value of the assets received by each spouse must be equal. Thus, it is not uncommon for one spouse to be awarded the family residence, with the other spouse receiving the family business and investment real estate, as long as each spouse gets assets that are equivalent in value."

So rather than count up socks and potholders, have him decide what he wants, and you get goods or cash that equal that total value. I'd rather have the cash than old sunglasses.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:33 AM on May 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Ask your lawyer about having an appraiser do this. There are probably many professional appraisers in your area who do this for a living -- get in, write shit down, estimate the value and get out. Both parties and lawyers are sometimes present. It removes the room for recrimination when a disinterested third-party writes down items and their value.

As for why, yes, this is a handy negotiating tool going forward.
posted by mibo at 9:37 AM on May 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

My strategy is to emphasize that I'm not taking their stuff and that my expensive boots and bike are going to be valued just like their ipad and the goal is that we both depart equitably.

You don't have to emphasize anything. Go through one room tonight (I suggest the kitchen or bath) and look at what you have. Bring a notepad. Write down the expensive stuff (fridge, if owned), the most expensive pots and pans (if any are expensive) and the juicer/kitchen aid mixer/bread machine and the midrange stuff (set of dishes--if it's nice, set of silver- if it's real) and put a star next to anything you love love love. Things like spatulas and wooden spoons are "chowder" -- a drawer full of that stuff would get you $10 at a garage sale if you're lucky, so write it down as "lot 1 drawer of utensils" -- you don't need to price every spatula.

You don't need to tell your ex that you're doing this, or suggest s/he do the same or anything. The lawyer, when there is one, will tell your ex to do that.

You're not a couple anymore. You don't need to manage how you'll both do this divorcing. You only need to manage to do what your lawyer or the mediator tells you to do.

And to other folks -- not everyone has retirement savings, pensions, or investments. Period. This just doesn't exist for a lot of people. Or, quite often, there's no imbalance between two spouses -- where one spouse has a lot more investments than the other. It's worth checking into -- but it might not even be a thing.
posted by vitabellosi at 6:42 AM on May 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

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