The recently-reported case of Morris v Donaldson is a comparatively rare example of a court dealing with a common problem: sorting out the contents of the home after a separation or divorce.
As the case demonstrates, separating or divorcing couples often spend a great deal of time and money arguing over the the contents of the former ‘matrimonial’ home. Accordingly, I thought it might be useful to set out a few guidelines on the subject that I believe such couples should bear in mind.
1. As with everything else, agree the division of the contents with your partner/spouse if you possibly can. If you can’t reach an agreement with them directly, then try to agree through solicitors or via mediation. To help you reach agreement, it may be useful to prepare a schedule, setting out the items and their values (see point 3 below).
2. If you can’t reach agreement, then the court can sort out who has what, but this can be prohibitively expensive.
3. Unless you own antique furniture or other items of value such as paintings, the current, second-hand, value of the entire contents is likely to be minimal. It may have cost several thousand pounds or more to purchase the contents originally, but their current second-hand value is the value that the court will use, and that may only be a few hundred pounds in total. Accordingly, the cost of court proceedings can very quickly exceed the value of the items being argued over.
4. If you do have valuable items, then if they are not divided equally (see the next point) the party who receives less may be entitled to financial compensation.
5. As with other property, equal division is the usual starting point when dividing contents (save for personal possessions, such as clothes, which each party should keep). There may, however, be other considerations. In particular, if one party is to have any children living with them then their needs should be taken into account, for example they will obviously need to have the children’s beds, and possibly other items.
6. If agreement cannot be reached and there are no items of sentimental value, consider selling the items and dividing the proceeds, rather than going to the expense of getting the court to sort it out.
7. Lastly, all of the contents should usually remain in the ‘matrimonial’ home until agreement is reached as to their division, or the court has decided the matter. This may mean that the party who is still in the property may have to allow the other party back in so that they can identify items (it will be very difficult for that party to remember everything that is in the property, without having access). If your partner/spouse starts removing items from the ‘matrimonial’ home without your consent then you should inform your solicitor immediately, and keep a note of the items that have been taken.
These are just a few thoughts on the subject of dividing contents – I’m sure other family lawyers would have other tips of their own. However, I do think that following the above guidelines will help in dealing with what is often a difficult matter.
John Bolch is a family law blogger