I vividly remember litigating a very contentious divorce case back in the early 1980’s. The Magistrate who heard the dispute still occasionally pokes fun at me about the case! Husband and Wife wanted to argue and fight over the division of a voluminous list of household goods acquired during the marriage, most having little or no value. Since then, when I was a young lawyer, I believe I have now been able to gain some valuable insight on litigation of this nature.
Typically, Judges and Magistrates do not want to litigate these type of disputes, partly due to the dollars in controversy, but more often because of the irrational positions and fervor of the contestants. Now, understand that I am referring to replaceable used household goods, furniture and other sundry items acquired during the marriage, not valuable jewelry, guns or coin collections, separate premarital property or items with sentimental value.
Going to Court and actually litigating virtually any family law issue these days is both a time consuming and an expensive process. Common sense and logic support making all reasonable efforts to narrow the contested issues in a divorce case to the most significant ones, such as parenting time, custody, major asset valuation, spousal support, etc. I have also learned over the years that when a client justifies litigating the division of household goods because of the “principle” involved, the lawyer better watch out. Typically, such a client later becomes incensed at the lawyer upon seeing the bill associated with fighting in Court over minor items. When the client views the reality of the “fruits of victory” in hindsight, and then does a cost/benefit analysis, the lofty “principle” involved usually erodes away and the result left is just an angry, frustrated and bitter client.
Many courts have devised approaches and local rules to try to reduce litigation over household goods. Montgomery County, Ohio, has adopted Local Rule 4.40, which provides as follows:
Marital household goods, furniture, furnishings, appliances, tools, and other tangible personal property shall be divided as the parties may agree. If the parties are unable to agree, the Court adopts the following as standards for the division of personal property.
(A) Personal items. Each party shall be awarded those items brought into the marriage, personally inherited or received as an individual gift. Each party shall also be awarded his/her own books, papers, creations, mementos, jewelry, family heirlooms and other personal possessions. Any family photos, home videos, music collections and similar items shall be equally divided between the parties by agreement or duplicated, with each party paying one half of the cost of duplication.
(B) Children’s items. If there are minor children, all furniture, clothing and toys primarily used by the children, plus any clothes washer and dryer, shall be retained by the residential parent.
(C) Remaining personal property. The remaining household goods, furniture, furnishings, appliances, tools, and other tangible personal property shall be divided as the parties may agree. If the parties cannot reach an agreement, the parties shall select one of the following two options:
(1) The parties shall flip a coin with the winner having first choice of one item, the loser having second choice, and the parties alternating selections until all items in dispute are divided; or
(2) All disputed items shall be appraised with the cost of appraisal to be shared equally by the parties; the plaintiff shall have the first option to keep all disputed items by purchasing defendant’s one half interest at one half the total appraised value; upon plaintiff’s refusal, defendant shall have the same option.
(D) The court may appoint a neutral third party to assist in the division of household goods by alternate selection if deemed necessary. Cost of the service shall be divided equally between the parties.
In my 30 plus year career, clients have literally fought over divisions of salt and pepper shakers, the bedside mood candle, X-rated photos and movies of each other . . . and yes, believe it or not, disposable paper bed sheets (which I never knew existed)! Loud and colorful testimony was offered by both the husband and wife in that case back in the 80’s… If my memory is correct, we were ending the two-day hearing and I believe we were down to fighting over the 8 or 10 paper bed sheets from the parties’ 20-year-old travel trailer. Should the paper sheets go with ownership of the dilapidated trailer, or should they be divided between them?
In the end, I think the Court awarded all the prized disposable bed sheets to my client, and the wife received the cremains of a cherished cat kept in a Maxwell House coffee can on the mantel. I think it’s difficult to determine which side really prevailed in that litigation! Don’t you agree?
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Robert L. Mues
Robert Mues is the managing partner of Dayton, Ohio, law firm, Holzfaster, Cecil, McKnight & Mues, and has received the highest rating from the Martindale-Hubbell Peer Review for Ethical Standards and Legal Ability. Mr. Mues is also a founding member of the "International Academy of Attorneys for Divorce over 50" blog.