I recently read an article about Dan Auerbach, the lead singer and guitarist for the Black Keys. He just divorced his wife, Stephanie Gonis. In the property division, she received $5 million, one of the couple’s homes, a Toyota Highlander …. and a lock of Bob Dylan’s hair!
From a legal perspective, two things are interesting about the property division including the lock of Bob Dylan’s hair. First, the hair was presumably valuable enough to the couple to be an issue in their divorce. Second, despite the value of the hair to them, they still managed to settle their case and peacefully decide who got the hair. (The more interesting question, of course, is what they were doing with Bob Dylan’s hair in the first place, and why it was so important to them. But those are non-legal questions for a different blog!)
“Property” in a divorce includes a lot of different things. Real estate, bank accounts, retirement accounts, stocks, bonds, investments, cars, trucks, boats, and businesses are all “property” which get divided in a divorce. So is “personal property:” the furniture, furnishings, clothes, books, tools, household goods, collections, decorations, and other “stuff” people possess.
In most states, including Illinois, marital property is divided “equitably.” Dividing property equitably does not necessarily mean dividing it equally. It simply means property is divided fairly. In community property states, marital/community property is divided equally. However, whether you are dividing property “equitably” or “equally,” divorcing couples still need to resolve the issues of what the property is really worth and exactly who gets what property in the divorce. That’s where things get interesting.
Some property is fairly easy to value. If you have $100 in your bank account, you have $100. That’s pretty easy to figure out. But what happens if you have something, like a lock of Bob Dylan’s hair, that has no set value? How do you decide what that is worth? And, if both parties want the same unique item (i.e. the hair), how do you decide who gets it?
Unfortunately, the law isn’t great at determining value. The only “value” the law really recognizes is monetary. Sure, a judge can understand that family photos are worth more than the cost of the paper they are printed on. But, thankfully, photos can be easily reproduced today. It may cost you a few bucks, but you can get an extra copy of the pictures made so that both spouses in a divorce get a set of them. What happens, though, when both parties want the same, irreplaceable thing?
When only one person can get a particular thing, it is up to the parties, or their attorneys, to negotiate for it. Or, a judge can decide which party gets that thing. But, here’s a tip: most judges hate dividing up people’s “stuff.” They will do it if they have to, but don’t expect a judge to have a lot of patience with you if you spend precious court time debating over whether you or your spouse gets the tupperware. Its really not a good use of judicial resources.
Attorneys can also help you negotiate the division of your personal property. But, before you get your attorneys involved in dividing everything from your fitness equipment to your flat screen T.V., take a moment to remember how much you are paying your attorneys per hour. Does it really make sense to spend thousands of dollars in attorneys’ fees negotiating who gets to keep the beat up area rug in the dining room? Or, does it make more sense to divide your stuff yourself and keep the money you would have spent in attorney’s fees in your own pocket so that you can buy new stuff after you are divorced?
The problem, of course, is that, if you and your spouse could agree on everything yourselves, you probably wouldn’t be getting divorced in the first place. But, just because the discussion might be difficult, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have it. In fact, you and your spouse are in a much better position to decide how to divide your personal property than any lawyer or judge ever could be. And if, in the end, the value of what you get is a little bit less than the value of what your spouse gets, maybe its ok. Take a lesson from Dan Auerbach. In the end, just like the lock of Bob Dylan’s hair, its really just stuff.
To read more about Dan Auerbach, go to: http://newsfeed.time.com/2013/08/26/the-black-keys-dan-auerbach-lost-bob-dylans-hair-in-divorce-settlement/