There was a time, in fact up until the late nineteenth century, when women were effectively chattels belonging to their husbands. On marriage, a woman’s possessions became her husband’s and she could not own property in her own right. It could also be said that a woman did not even own her own person: divorce, and thus freedom from abusive marriages, was almost impossible for all but the most privileged women as it required a special act of Parliament.
Three Acts of Parliament, the Married Women’s Property Acts of 1870, 1882 and 1893 changed the law to allow married women to keep possession of their own earnings, the property they owned before their marriage and property acquired during marriage, such as an inheritance. Although the position of women in society was still appalling, these laws at least put unmarried and married women on the same legal footing.
Happily, these days “chattels” are not women or children, but instead the term refers to personal possessions. This means the contents of your home, cars, pets (see our previous blog here about pets) etc, but not money, financial products or bricks-and-mortar property.
When a couple separates, their possessions need to be divided fairly as part of the overall arrangements. We find that this can often be one of the hardest parts of the process. Personal possessions can be painful reminders of happier times, or vested with emotional value, such as presents from your children or gifts from much loved relatives. In some cases they can also have a significant financial value: if your household is lucky enough to contain works of art, antique furniture or classic vehicles, for example.
There is no right or wrong answer regarding how to divvy up your possessions when you split up, and precious little guidance from the courts, which are simply not interested in arbitrating disputes over house contents. If you can’t settle the matter yourselves, the courts are likely simply to make you choose alternately from a list of everything in dispute, prepared by your solicitors – there must be a better way than this for deploying your legal budget! Mediation can be very effective for helping you to work out these kind of details cost-effectively and with lower levels of unhelpful conflict than you could manage on your own.
Our experience of seeing the way disputes over chattels can quickly deteriorate and sometimes derail otherwise civilized negotiations has helped us to come up with a few ways of helping couples sort through this issue. Here are a few basic guidelines which might help you make a start.
When thinking about furniture, think about where you both will live after you separate. Will you both need to furnish new properties? If so dividing the furniture and white goods so that you each keep some marital possessions and buy some new ones can be a fair approach. If one of you is staying in the family home, are there any key things the person who is leaving needs to take, or will they buy new? How will that be factored in to make it affordable?
Think also about the children – will they want familiar things around them in each home, or would they prefer the excitement of choosing new décor for a new room? Could there be a bit of both, at both houses? How much will it cost to give them what they need?
When it comes to items which have a significant financial value, their division may need to be accounted for in the overall settlement. For example if one car is new and valuable, and the other a cheap run-around, ought there to be balancing a balancing exercise with the other chattels or a cash substitute, to ensure fairness?
Wedding gifts or gifts to both of you can be tricky. Sometimes people work it out by saying that gifts from each person’s side of a family, or each person’s friends, stay with them. Family photos and albums often used to be a battleground, but in these days of digital photography when we hardly ever print hard copies of pictures, it is easy to make copies of favourite photos so that you each have a set. Thank goodness for the relentless march of technology!
We would recommend trying to sort out chattels relatively early on in the process. It can be helpful to go through each room of the house, the garden shed and the garage and attic, and prepare a list of what is there. Then try to agree the destination of as many of the items as you can. There may be some things you cannot agree on. As a last resort, you could take the court’s favoured approach and pick alternately from a list of what is left. Believe it or not, an American law firm has even developed an iPad app that can assist…
An agreed list showing the division of chattels can easily be appended to a court order (by consent or otherwise), and it is often a relief for a judge to see one, as it means there won’t be a fight over possessions. Judges and lawyers do understand that disputes about possessions are often more complicated than they can at first appear, which is partly why they are so difficult to resolve. Sometimes, people invest physical objects with emotional significance: during divorce, retaining a certain painting can represent victory, and relinquishing it can appear to mean defeat. It is only when we realise, understand, and accept that the argument is about more than the painting that we can start to progress to a solution that everyone can tolerate. Mediation can assist sometimes with finding the fundamental source of the conflict and allowing you both to address that, and often move forward more quickly as a result.
Really, it is all about being fair with the possessions you shared whilst together. Fairness means different things to each person when they are in the teeth of a relationship falling apart, but as always we are happy to try to give a dispassionate overview. Give us a call on 01223 443333 if you think we can help.