I have many clients going through the divorce process who fight furiously over possessions that, in the end, aren’t really that important or beneficial to them at all. One prime example was a woman in her mid-30s who was hell-bent on keeping the house. She had gone to great lengths to decorate it, had worked very hard to make her fair share of the house payments, and was willing to spend whatever it took to keep that house. She spent thousands in legal fees defending her position and won in the end. It wasn’t long, however, before she realized that she really couldn’t afford the payments or the upkeep at all! Indeed, she had won the battle but, as they say, she had lost the war. It would have been far wiser for her to sell that asset, take the proceeds, and buy a place that was better suited to her pocketbook and her peace of mind.
I always take plenty of time to go over the inventory of assets a client has and ask him or her to make a three-part list: things theymust have, things they would like to keep, and things they could easily let go of. After I explain the “list” process, I tell them to carefully evaluate each item and, with great objectivity, put it in the proper column. I also tell my clients to make sure to do this three-part list when they are not tired, angry, or having one of those peak moments when they are feeling at their absolute emotional worst! Make this list when you’re feeling at your rational and objective “best”, I tell them. Otherwise, you may not only end with things you didn’t need but didn’t really want. It’s like going to the grocery store when you’re starving: most of us tend to buy things impulsively that we’re later sorry for!
The “must have” list should consist of items such as heirlooms and treasures that could never be replaced. If you ask yourself: “Can I get another one of these?” then the item moves to one of the other columns. I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t want to keep things that you worked hard for, or that have meaning and material value, but just evaluate what it is worth to you to get or to keep it. In the end, many of my clients realize that given the resources, most “things” can be replaced. Granted, it may take time to get money enough to replace them (such as a house), but they are replaceable. So make a careful assessment of “must haves”.
You’ll find as you do your assessment that most items will fall into the “would like to keep” column, and that is where you really want to exercise your greatest restraint. Sure, you’d like to keep the BMW, but can you afford the payments? Yes, you would like to have the Ming vase, but would you have to swap it for the living room, dining room, and bedroom furniture? Indeed, it would be nice to hold on to the Escher print, but every time you pass by it, will it serve as a reminder of your failed marriage? Ironically, gloating over items you won in the battle — items you pass by every day — may be the very things that make you feel bad long after the war is over. You may find that the list of “things you can easily let go of” is much longer than you first thought it would be. I have clients who later told me that it actually helped them to move on in many ways when they had the opportunity to start from scratch with everything including the house they lived in to the utensils in their kitchen.
What makes more sense when you’re about to fight over things is to look at your gains over the long term. For example: Would it make more sense to opt for more spousal support and to ask for it over a longer period of time? Would it be more practical to give up the Cappuccino machine in exchange for the washer and dryer? And let’s say you do want — must have — that Cappuccino machine: how much will it cost in legal fees to finally get it? Think. Really think. I once knew a couple that fought over a ceiling fan light fixture that racked up $4,000 in attorney’s fees! As you can see, getting that fixture had nothing to do with what was best.
So as you go about categorizing the items on your list of “things”, make certain you do it with objectivity and good common sense. You should ask yourself this: Is it really worth it emotionally and financially? Long term: Is it is a win or a loss? Though it’s hard, always put your feelings aside. In the end, if you have a hard time making this list and making these decisions, ask a trusted friend or family member — one who really knows you — to help. That may be the best of all strategies.
Stacy D. Phillips is a co-founder of Phillips Lerner, A Law Corporation, which specializes in high-profile family law matters. She is co-chair of the Women’s Political Committee and a member of Divorce Magazine‘s North American Advisory Board. She can be reached at (310) 277-7117. View her firm’s Divorce Magazine profile here.