The real cost of fighting over possessions and chattels - Family Law Partners

The real cost of fighting over possessions and chattels

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Chattels is the legal term that refers to personal possessions. In the context of divorce and separation, this will include the contents of your home, cars, pets (yes pets, which is a whole other blog!) but not financial assets or property made of bricks and mortar.

When a couple separate, their chattels are often the last thing on their minds. Matters relating to their children and/or their finances tend to take priority, and rightly so. However, we all have things that we own that are important to us, that will be expensive to replace and/or have sentimental value. So, when we do turn our focus to how these might be divided couples often find themselves locked into an expensive and long battle.

Many items will remind couples of happier times such as presents from their children or gifts from their family or friends. Sometimes, the items may have a significant value such as antique furniture, artwork or classic cars.

So, who owns what?

There is no right or wrong way on how to divide up these items. Items brought in to the relationship or gifted to one party are likely to be retained by them, but most items are likely to have been acquired during the relationship. What if the parties’ company has purchased certain items e.g. computers? From my experience there is even less guidance from the family courts. Asking a Judge to decide who should keep the cat or the television will get a fairly short shrift response. That is not to say that Judges are not often asked to deal with such issues, particularly if a couple are in hot dispute about a precious painting or pet. It doesn’t take long before disputes of chattels can deteriorate and spoil, otherwise amicable, negotiations between the couple. Family lawyers will all have cases where an item can’t be agreed and an impasse is created.

If a couple cannot agree how to divide their possessions then either of them could make an application to the court to ask the Judge to make the decision. This would involve at least one court hearing and is very likely to end with the Judge simply making each of them choose alternately from a list of everything in dispute or direct that everything should be sold and the proceeds divided between them. Such a process could be extremely costly and so I always remind clients that there are better things to spend their money on. These types of cases can run into thousands of pounds for each party – ultimately probably enough to purchase a whole new set of the items in dispute!

I always encourage couples to look at alternative ways of resolving the dispute either through Mediation, Collaborative Law or Arbitration which are far more cost effective.

My advice is to think practically (and commercially) about what you will each need – the focus being on what the children need – and where you will live after you separate. Consider what furniture and white goods you will need and whether it will fit in your new home. A simple conclusion might be that you each keep some furniture and white goods, and you each have to buy some too. Children are likely to want familiar things around them or they may like the prospect of choosing things for a new room. If you can’t agree then think about what the cost of replacing items will be and how they will be funded.

Any items with a significant value may need to be considered within the overall financial settlement. For example, if one party has a very expensive car but the other a cheap run-around, there may be a balancing exercise needed.

Gifts, particularly joint gifts, usually cause the most difficulty. Very often a resolution may be that you each retain the gifts from your respective family or friends. Thankfully these days photographs can be copied and so there is often no need for arguments over photo albums. If tensions are running high and this is not addressed you will be relying on goodwill if they are asked for after the terms are agreed.

Options for dividing possessions

As the divorce or separation process progresses it’s easy to forget to deal with chattels and so I always recommend trying to sort these out relatively early on if you can. A good tip is to go through each room in the house, the loft, garden, shed/garage and make a list of everything that is in there. Then try to agree it – simple! If you can’t agree, then as mentioned above the court would often approach it by each of you picking alternately from the list of what is left. Another option is you agree the list and then each bid for the item. The highest bid wins and there is then a balancing payment. However, agreeing lists can be a challenge and this becomes more difficult when one party is no longer in occupation and access is denied.

If you are thinking of separating and leaving, think about taking photos and make a note of the contents that will need to be considered to make sure there is a reference point if you can’t easily get back in to your home or property at a later date.

Whilst it may appear that Judges and lawyers often trivialise the issue of possessions, rest assured they do understand that disputes about possessions are often more complicated than they can at first appear. They just know the resources spent arguing on these issues are usually wholly disproportionate.

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