Family Law Tips: Dividing Personal Property

Family Law Tips: Dividing Personal Property
by Chris Annunziata
image of family law mediator Chris Annunziata

The Rollins Case Study

I would venture to guess most family lawyers are familiar with the Glen and Danielle Rollins divorce saga. It is a cautionary tale about what can happen when two spiteful people with deep pockets get divorced and decide to fight over, of all things, doorknobs.
The Rollins reached an apparent settlement of their divorce in 2013, in which Danielle Rollins received essentially a $15 million cash settlement and Glen Rollins got the couple’s recently renovated $7 million Buckhead mansion. Despite the apparent agreement, Danielle must not have been too happy that Glen was awarded the mansion that she spent the time and over $4 million to renovate and decorate.
As reported, she took several items that had been awarded to Glen Rollins. According to Glen and court documents, Danielle also significantly vandalized the property, put “deep scratches on a marble vanity, ripped curtains, ruined a carpet and damaged antique crystal sconces.” He also claims she took 100 doorknobs “worth tens of thousands of dollars,” and replaced them with doorknobs from Home Depot. After months of continued litigation, motions for contempt and hearings, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Lane ordered Danielle to pay Glen more than $500,000 in compensation, contempt damages and attorney’s fees.
Now, I would wager that most of your clients don’t have so much personal property that they can fight it out over $300,000 in doorknobs, curtains, and patio furniture. That doesn’t mean, however, that clients won’t fight tooth and nail over their personal property or vandalize each other’s property out of spite. I once spent three hours in the Paulding County courthouse helping a couple painstakingly and equitably divide more than 30 firearms. Even when the parties both say, “Oh, no worries, we can divide the personal stuff,” there is no guarantee a fresh dispute won’t arise.

Tried-and-True Methods for Dividing Personal Property

Most clients also don’t have the disposable income to pay both you and a mediator to divide up their property. So what can you do when the clients can’t decide who gets the washer and who gets the dryer? Over the years, I’ve come across several creative methods you can suggest to help the parties reach a resolution on their own.

The “Shotgun” Approach

Giving credit where it is due, I learned of this method from Charles Medlin of Bovis, Kyle, Burch & Medlin. Charles called it the “shotgun” method but I’ve also seen it described as the “spinning shotgun.”
First, the parties agree to a list of the disputed assets and then decide which party “chooses” first. A round of “Rock, Paper, Scissors” works. The parties don’t simply choose items from the list like the NFL draft. The party that goes first gets to choose an item of property off the list and also gets to assign a dollar value. The other party then has the option to “buy” the item or “sell” the item to the other side at that price. The item and its value are then placed on the appropriate side of a ledger sheet. This process continues with the roles alternating for each successive item of property.
At the end, the total value of items on each side of the ledger is calculated and any difference in value can be equalized with other property. The threat that one party will eventually have to “pay” for overvaluing the property should mitigate the risk of one party setting inappropriate values.

The Blind Bid method

In a blind bid approach, each party creates a list of the disputed property and then places a “sealed” bid for each piece of property. The highest bidder “wins” that piece of property, which is then placed on the appropriate side of a ledger sheet. Once the bidding concludes, the value of the items on each side of the ledger is totaled up and any difference in value can be equalized with other property. Much like the shotgun approach, if one spouse intentionally overbids for the property they may have to “pay” for it elsewhere.

The “Last Cookie” Method

Another method is derived from the age-old solution to the problem of two children fighting over the last cookie. One spouse is instructed to draw up two lists of assets. The other spouse then gets to choose which list of property he or she wants. Because the spouse who drafts the list doesn’t control what he or she gets, they have an incentive to produce two lists which they would feel equally comfortable receiving.
While nothing is fool-proof, keeping both parties involved in the process should help increase post-divorce satisfaction resulting in both sides feeling as if they received a fair distribution of the personal property.

Parting Thoughts

Of course, if the parties want to mediate or arbitrate, I’m available to help you. For those of you who haven’t mediated with me at Miles, I invite you to come by and check it out. Everything at Miles Mediation is geared toward making your mediation as productive as possible. We provide all the amenities you could want – a convenient, comfortable, confidential space; catered lunch and snacks; audio-visual aids, WiFi and teleconferencing for the out-of-state party – so you can focus on the task at hand: settling your case.