Divorce filter: how do I disentangle our possessions?
December 21, 2017 6:41 AM   Subscribe

My marriage is ending. I thought we were separating with the option of reconciliation, but it's become clear that divorce is the only end to this. We're working with a mediator but haven't reached lawyer time yet, and I'm moving out in two months. How do we split up what we own? More details within.

We have lived together for eight years and have a small child. From cohabitation and a couple of big moves, who owned/owns what is really not obvious, and of course we've bought and been given a lot of things together. I'm moving into another place on March 1st and have until then to figure out what to take with me. I don't picture us having access to each other's homes except to trade off the kiddo after that.

Hardly anyone I know has been through this and I don't have a good source of advice about how you split up your stuff. I think it would be a waste of time and money to discuss, like, who gets the contents of the junk drawer in mediation.

What I've already done:

1. Gotten quite far on packing up non-valuable things that are unambiguously mine, because I owned them before we moved in together, made them, or was personally given them as gifts.

2. Listed what furniture I hope/plan to take with me - either because I use it more (like the nightstand on my side of the bed) or because I bought it, owned it before, or we agree that I like it better.

3. Made a list of emotionally loaded things we're going to have to agree about storing or getting rid of (things from our wedding and wedding gifts, kiddo's baby clothes we were saving, that kind of thing).

4. Started a list of what our kiddo is absolutely going to need to have at each of our homes.

Spouse and I both work full time and have limited options for child care outside the hours our kid is at daycare. I'm devastated, angry and frightened and having a hard time making decisions or being really productive, which makes this harder.

Does anyone who's been through this have advice on how to do this with as little conflict as possible, with limited time, and without spending painful hours together?
posted by centrifugal to Human Relations (17 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Your number one and number two sound like a good start.

For number 3, as for the kid stuff, make an agreement that these things need to be saved, with the understanding that whoever has the space to do so without incurring extra expense (ie renting a storage unit or a place with more bedrooms than you need) will do so.

As for the wedding gifts, you could agree that gifts given by your side of the family go to you, your spouse's family to them, and do sort of a lottery for things given by friends.

But I would caution you that when keeping things that have emotion attached to them, it may end up that you don't enjoy using those things much because every time you see them you are reminded of the marriage, or you are reminded of the fight that you had at the end over who got to keep the thing. With that in mind, my advice is don't fight too too hard to keep any one thing in particular. It's not worth the fight if you end up shoving it in a closet or getting rid of it later.

As for kid stuff - edit carefully. My mom kept a bunch of my stuff and by the time I had kids I decided that I didn't want any of the old stuff. You might keep one or two really good quality toys, a blanket, and like a christening gown, but there's no need to keep a whole box full of clothes. We do keep favorite books though, but again, I would edit harshly depending on storage space.

As for your number four, you don't say how old kiddo is but if you have a baby you can borrow baby stuff like a crib or a high chair if each household needs one, you don't need to buy a second one. If it's an older kid, remember that kiddo needs your time more than anything so you can set up the household as you go along.

I'm sorry that you're going through all of this.
posted by vignettist at 7:02 AM on December 21, 2017 [5 favorites]

I don't know what the ideal way to split possessions is, but from experience and secondhand knowledge I would suggest trying not to invest more importance in any physical items than is necessary for your realistic needs. Sometimes items become proxy battles for feelings about the relationship itself, which can lead to deeper resentment and further hurt feelings. Battles of that sort can lead to feelings of things taking on a win/lose dynamic that makes getting past the difficulties even more difficult by fixating on any items lost rather than finding whatever acceptance of the events one can, with a child involved, this could potentially be even more stressful in the long term.

Things like photos can be duplicated, smaller items can be purchased again, and, depending on one's financial situation, that might even be useful to think about for bigger items as a way of moving on rather than fighting about it should it appear things might come to that. The feelings one associates with items take on added weight in times of separation as the memories of better times and one's need for connection feel so important, but at the same time those feelings aren't in the items they only serve as reminders of them. That may not be true for everyone of course, but that's what helped me and what seemed to serve as a roadblock for others who tied their desires more strongly to items in both divorces and between family members after parents passed away.
posted by gusottertrout at 7:07 AM on December 21, 2017 [5 favorites]

Add: Agree about what to do about items that no one wants -- this will be like moving, and there will be a lot of "trash" and "donate." Someone needs to be responsible for getting the "donate" stuff out of the way. If that's you, fine, but set expectations ahead of time.

Your 1, 2, & 3 sound great. Good luck. I know this all sucks a lot right now.
posted by Medieval Maven at 7:28 AM on December 21, 2017

I went through this (though without a kid to complicate things), and you have my complete sympathy. My advice would be to keep in the forefront of your consciousness that your emotions are going to make it hard verging on impossible to make the kind of sensible decisions you would otherwise, and compensate for that by being as generous as you can. When my ex-wife and I were doing this, I found myself wanting to take all the bookcases because I had so many more books, and when she said "I think I should get one, I have books too," I sort of snapped out of it and said "Of course." When I think back on that period, I wince at the unpleasant things I said, did, and thought, but the times I was generous are what keep me from feeling too rotten about myself. Good luck, it's not easy.
posted by languagehat at 7:32 AM on December 21, 2017 [22 favorites]

Do an inventory of the entire house with a third party that both of you trust. Everything gets garage sale value assigned to it. This may be painful. Things might have cost a lot but are worth next to nothing at a garage sale.

The both of you go into the spread sheet and bid on item or somehow mark the items that you want. There may be some back and forth discussion of particular items. Either you agree or that item is sold and you split the proceeds. The item value should be roughly equal.

Remember these things:
- So much stuff is replaceable at Goodwill. Try your best to not yet too connected to material things.
- Your ex is your kid's parent so think of that before trying to screw them over.
posted by k8t at 7:41 AM on December 21, 2017 [9 favorites]

I did this with an ex with whom I was with for ~10 years and lived together for several of those. No kids involved though so I can’t help with that. We were fighting over everything so what we eventually did was create a giant list of everything (from furniture down to measuring cups) and went through and divvied it up in one sitting. Not gonna lie, it was painful, but we got through it. We each kept “our” stuff that we had before the relationship. And for the list we tried to make sure both of us got roughly half of the items/value.

One thing I will say though is try not to be too attached to the items. It’s been many years for me now and most of that stuff that I argued so hard for I don’t use or it’s buried in the back of a closet because of all the bad memories it evokes or I just plain didn’t need it but took it to spite him. This will likely be tough for you because emotions are running high but try to remember that most of these items don’t matter. Good luck.
posted by FireFountain at 7:56 AM on December 21, 2017 [4 favorites]

Can each of you agree to take the same day off so that while your child is at daycare you can do some of this work?

In our case we had a shared old car, and our furniture was mostly used/handed-down so I kept the newer things that I had purchased and paid for (he was moving into a situation where that was all there already), and asked him to reimburse me for part of the cost of the car. I imagine the same logic could apply to all household things, if one of you will be left without something, what is the likely cost of replacing it, and the other person can buy the other person out if they want to keep something that does not clearly belong to the other.

Having been through this one thing I still regret is that we argued in front of our child through the breaking up phase, try to be kind to each other or at least neutral as much as possible and reserve heavy conversations for therapy or when the child is asleep or out of the house. Also my son (who was 3) didn't want to see any packing up happening, and his dad dropped him off at my new apartment before I was unpacked and that was not ideal, the more ready the new place can be before your child goes there the better, and it might be hard at first but they might benefit from spending shorter periods of time at the new place at first also. Keep putting yourself into your child's shoes as much as possible.
posted by lafemma at 8:26 AM on December 21, 2017 [3 favorites]

I just had this from a 20 year relationship/3 kids (so a lot of stuff). He had not contributed anything to household purchases in that time (financially or maintaining anything) so, morally, all of it should have been mine but I let him take everything he wanted - including items I had purchased before I even met him or deeply personal items that he couldn't even use (I went around his house one day to see my hairbrush on his shelf - wtf?). I am coming out ahead in the breakup because I am being the only mature adult and not having him in my life is so freeing. It is just stuff, start fresh and let go of anything that brings up the slightest disagreement. You got this.
posted by saucysault at 9:16 AM on December 21, 2017 [22 favorites]

It sounds like 1 and 2 cover most of the things that are obvious and straightforward, but that items in #3 are the tough ones.
One thing that I learned when my ex and I split was that I was the more sentimental one, and that things I thought would be contentious for emotional reasons were no big deal to her. You might be surprised if you can have this conversation.

In the end a lot of it is just stuff, and as the years go by that stuff changes in its importance. sometimes one partner just wants a thing so that the other partner won't have it. this dynamic can be toxic to some and cathartic to others. Perhaps having an excuse to go shopping to replace a thing you didn't get will help you move onward.

Sorry you are going through this, and I hope you are stronger and healthier on the other side. Make life good for your kiddo as best you can and find joy in that. Best wishes.
posted by OHenryPacey at 9:57 AM on December 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

All I will add is that one of the best things I did in my life was to be drama free when I got divorced and not fight about stuff if there was any way to avoid it. My ex and I split up when our daughter was 2-she is almost 21 and thanks me to this day for remaining friendly and not fighting with her dad.

Stuff is stuff. If you can’t survive without it, or if it has significant emotional meaning to you, then hold a calm but firm line. I don’t think you will regret taking the high road on everything else-and if you start down that path, your ex is likely to move that way with you.

A coworker I know talks about striving to be the most reasonable person in the room, which I think is great advice for many situations.
posted by purenitrous at 11:09 AM on December 21, 2017 [3 favorites]

A formalized process for determining the 'market value' of marital possessions in divorce through an 'auction based process' is described here. Briefly, you bid on each item what you're willing to pay. If your soon-to-be-ex is underbidding on an item that they don't think you'll want, you can bid the actual market value and sell the item on an open market for a tidy profit.
posted by Doc_Sock at 11:15 AM on December 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

For stuff like piles of books or CDs where we couldn't remember who came in with what and didn't care about any of them particularly (so, no signed first editions or whatever), we did the cut and choose thing: the cutter cuts the stuff into two piles, the chooser chooses one of the piles and takes it, cutter gets the other pile. Physical piles is easier: if you don't want to see your ex, leave the stuff somewhere while you're out (my ex still had access to the house we owned even after she moved out) and photograph both piles first (assuming you're the cutter, not the chooser).

I also remember doing an inventory spreadsheet and suggesting who got what initially as the basis for starting negotiations. You may well find there's a bunch of stuff neither of you care about and you can just throw away. I did all this by email and Google Docs/Sheets (where you can share write access if you trust the other person, or just give them read access).
posted by pw201 at 11:39 AM on December 21, 2017

Are you sure you have to wait until March to move? It might be worth finding a temporary place in the meantime. That's a really stressful wait.

For 3 you don't actually have to agree. Just list the stuff that you individually want and ask for it and then store it. If you don't want it and your ex doesn't want it, toss it or leave it for your ex to toss. ("I think my kid might like it later" counts as "wanting it.")

For 4, you don't have to do this for your ex's place. That's your ex's job. Negotiating about splitting up kid stuff should largely be limited to stuff that is very special to the kid (which, IMO, should go with the kid or stay at the home the kid is at most of the time). A cup the kid likes is not worth this kind of discussion.

Of course you have to stock your house up, but you should probably just buy new stuff/copies instead of trying to split the actual existing stuff.

The thing that sucks about 4 is realizing that you can't make your ex make their house the way you want it to be for your kid. The healthiest way you can influence the stuff at their house is by offering to buy them any items that your kid really likes. This should only be done if you can be reasonably chipper about it, and it should be done sparingly, and you should be okay with hearing a "no".

Since you're the one moving, though, if you leave basically everything behind you don't have to worry that your ex isn't stocked up. Just focus on what you need to replace.

Also look, if you leave it behind it's your ex's problem, and not your problem. This is fine and you don't need to ask them in order to take advantage of this fact. They get to keep the place and they don't have to move, which is what makes this fair.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 1:20 PM on December 21, 2017

Oh and when in doubt, let your ex win. The vast majority of this stuff is totally unimportant.

And, frankly, I wouldn't even bother to try to take books or furniture or anything like that. Your kid still lives there and unless it's really personal and important to you, just leave it. Yes, it might be "your" furniture, but it's furnishing your kid's home. Just let that shit go if you can afford to.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 1:25 PM on December 21, 2017 [2 favorites]

You have spoken to a lawyer, right? Because moving out of the family home has huge legal and financial consequences. Before you do that, please understand what those consequences are.

My husband moved out, and we signed a separation agreement we'd generated ourselves. Among many other provisions, it gave him a 3-month deadline after the divorce was final for claiming his share of things, and a 3-day deadline after that to take them away from the house. (I got the house.) He missed the first deadline, by several months, and therefore lost everything in the house to me. The legal power of being the one in possession is significant.
posted by Capri at 2:15 PM on December 21, 2017 [2 favorites]

Please learn from my "mistake" and make sure you get everything that came from your family.

When my wife of 17 1/2 years moved out in early 2016, she did it while I was out of town. It turns out she took *all* of our holiday decorations and put them in a storage unit.

This is a problem for me, because every year of my kids' lives, my mom has given them a new, special Christmas tree ornament. We had five kids, and the oldest is 16, so there are more than 50 ornaments hand-picked from my mom for the kids.

For the past two years the ornaments have sat in the storage unit and I don't have access to them. My ex claims they are "way in the back" and "buried under other stuff" and hasn't returned them. I asked for them again this week because I have the kids on Christmas Eve and she promised to give them to me "next summer."

As you can tell, I am irritated. The ornaments mean a lot to me and my parents and mean nothing to her, but because they ended up in the wrong household, I can't do anything about it.
posted by tacodave at 4:45 PM on December 21, 2017

You're focusing on logistics and that is good! Your 1, 2 and 3 sound great.

I have been through divorce (sans kid) and a friend of mine is currently going through this (with kid), and the most helpful advice I received was to not attach your feelings about the situation to the Stuff. I, too, was devastated and angry, but I found that being reasonable and willing to compromise about Stuff was better for me overall in that it made a super painful situation a tiny bit less painful. Every time I took something I wanted, I ran it by him - EVEN if they were things that were clearly more mine than his. And I found that my ex was more inclined to be generous and accommodating as a result. At the time I could not have tolerated sitting on our living room floor sifting through drawers of random crap we accumulated so I decided not to subject myself to that. I lost some stuff I probably would've liked to keep, but a year later I can barely even remember what those things were. I look back and I am SO glad we got through that brutal experience without ALSO fighting over who deserves to keep the fancy mixer. I let go of the idea of "deserving" stuff - what I really deserved was to get through the divorce as unscathed as possible and move on with my life. Stuff is replaceable.

That said, my ex was fairly reasonable/unsentimental and we both could afford to replace some stuff (we didn't have anything of great value.) It might be helpful for you both to make lists of "things you would be heartbroken to lose" and "things you wouldn't mind getting rid of" and note where you're aligned and where you differ. I realize there's a third person in all this and that makes things a bit more complicated, so I think it would be wise to talk to a lawyer or mediator about the best way to do this WITHOUT battling for every household item in court and save more formal proceedings for things you share that are of significant value or truly irreplaceable.

I will say that buying new stuff that was fully Mine without having to consider someone else's taste/preferences felt good, and it marked the beginning of creating a new life of my own design. It felt weirdly empowering at a time when I felt mostly hopeless and terrible.

I hope this process is as peaceful as possible for you guys and I'm sorry you're going through it. It gets better.
posted by blackcatcuriouser at 10:58 PM on December 21, 2017 [3 favorites]

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