Family Law Unraveled
The latest from Margaret's blog
Monday, October 25, 2010
When people get divorced, they have to divide up property they accumulated during their life together. Houses, cars, bank accounts, investments and retirement benefits are all on the table to be shuffled, distributed, or sometimes divided. To be sure, I often spend a lot of time negotiating exactly how this should happen, but ultimately it does all come down to money, e.g., how much is the house worth vs. the 401(k)?
Not so with stuff. Furniture, artwork (of the still-life-your-sister-painted-in-art-school variety, not the signed-Picasso-print variety), photographs, kitchen wares – the dreaded category of “personal property” can be the bane of the divorce lawyer’s existence. Dividing up stuff is not about money; it’s totally about emotion. People who have millions of dollars in investments can end up fighting over a piece of pottery someone picked up at a roadside market in Guatemala. I try to avoid these negotiations like the plague. I generally tell clients “I don’t do furniture” – meaning, work it out yourselves, because it’s a total waste of time and money to pay lawyers to argue about why one spouse should get the print of the lilies rather than the water color of the Cape Cod sunset; how are we supposed to know?
But I do understand that stories and history and family culture are embodied in the stuff we acquire as the years pass, and sometimes lawyers can’t avoid getting involved. If that happens, and if I start to feel irritated about it, I have developed a sure fire way to put a damper on my irritation and summon forth the empathy necessary to get the job done. I go straight to an example of stuff acquired during my own marriage that I would lie down in front of a truck for: my Christmas decorations! I love them. I love acquiring a couple of beautiful new ornaments each year. I love the play dough, macaroni and glue Santas my kids made in pre-school. I love the popsicle stick reindeer with the googly eyes they made in first grade (same art teacher, exact same holiday project three years later.) I love the holiday candles and garlands I put on the mantle. Woe be to the man who wanted to take those treasures from me! So I get it. But I still hope fervently that my clients and their spouses can work out this part of their divorce for themselves. I’m much more comfortable thinking through what to do with their stock options than their Kitchen Aid mixers.
Sometimes people can use stuff as a weapon. I had a divorce case a while back where the settlement agreement provided for the parties to share their only child’s Bar Mitzvah photographs as follows: the husband was to get the album made by the photographer and the wife (my client), was to get all the prints. Sounds reasonable, right? Unfortunately, when the 200+ prints were finally (and reluctantly) delivered to my client, she discovered that all the pictures which included her family members were missing. The husband professed ignorance as to how this could have happened and no one had the negatives. Ouch. This was the same guy, by the way, who had a bonfire with my client’s wedding dress in the back yard. Some people are lucky just to get away and leave the stuff behind.