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Do People Really Fight Over Dishes?

As a young family-law attorney starting out seventeen (17) years ago, I had no idea the variety of assets that would be the subject of long conversations with clients, letters to opposing counsel, negotiation at mediation, or even trial time in Court. Besides real estate, retirement accounts and cash, these assets have included Beanie Babies, pets, photo albums, dog houses, guns, clothing, and yes, dishes!

Our courts have become increasingly unwilling to spend time on personal property and are often now appointing arbitrators to decide these issues if unresolved at the time of trial. However, my experience representing clients and mediating cases has taught me that sometimes these issues are very important to one or both parties. Usually this is because either the item(s) has a great sentimental value or the item is a symbol or manifestation of an interest or feeling that they cannot articulate or that cannot be clearly or easily addressed in the traditional negotiation and litigation process.

Mediation is often a great way to address these issues if sensitive and perceptive lawyers and mediators are able to identify the intangible and unstated need, fear or interest that may be driving the person’s strong positional argument for clinging to that item. For example, I once perceived that a client’s desire to hold on to the “green dishes” was more about her desire to see some things stay the same (at least in her home) at a time of many changes.

Once that “interest” was identified and could be separated from the “position” she was taking, alternatives were explored that addressed this interest and resulted in a “win-win” acceptable resolution for both parties.

If you are a party in a divorce action, your attorney will likely encourage you to try and work out a mutually acceptable resolution of personal property without spending his/her time and your money. That is always better! However if you do find yourself fighting over the proverbial “dishes,” stop and ask yourself a couple of questions:

  1. Is this a fight worth fighting? Is this item easily replaceable and/or worth spending your money on? (The value the Court will use is “yard sale” value.)
  2. Is there something else really behind this position you are taking? Are you angry/afraid/trying to achieve a goal or need that is really unrelated to this object?
    If so, and if you can identify the need/fear/concern, etc., talk to your attorney, your friends or even a counselor about how best to address that underlying need so you can let those “dishes” go.

If the items are truly valuable, and clearly marital property and no reasonable agreement can be reached then try mediation or arbitration. The Court may not have time to address these issues, may not fully understand the sentimental or emotional attachment associated with the items and may in fact order you to arbitration anyway!

We all love our stuff, but sometimes it’s best to just “let it go”—and I am referring to both the item and the baggage associated with it.