You can expect two sure things when you need to divide property after a death or during a divorce. First, inside every supposedly mature adult there is a lurking 3-year-old sandbox bully with a single thought on how to divide property: “what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine, too.” Second, if you have to bring in lawyers to squelch sandbox squabbles and divide property for you, no one will be happy except the lawyers. It is better to walk into probate or divorce court with a plan to divide property that everyone can live with than to fight over scraps until nothing is left.
How to Divide Impersonal Property
When you divide property consisting of financial assets, which have no emotional strings, you merely need to count out the beans into properly sized piles. State law will probably control how you divide property when pension plans are being divided during a divorce. My advice is to hire a local accountant who specializes in this to evaluate the pensions and divide property accordingly. To divide property consisting of stock shares, make sure to divide each company’s shares so the risk of one stock soaring or crashing is divided among the recipients. Also make sure you understand the tax implications of any stock transfers.
If you need to divide property that has high monetary and little sentimental value, it might be easiest to sell it and divide the money. But generally, dividing property can be done easier with the help of a condo association management or any other property management association who has expertise and knowledge about property division.
How to Divide Sentimental Property
When you must divide property that consists of unique items with sentimental or monetary value, be on the lookout for sandbox bullies as this is when they are most likely to emerge. I have seen some creative ways to divide property that can minimize hurt feelings. After the division of undisputed property (her power tools, his bagpipe, items specifically mentioned in the will, etc.) is done, you can use one or more of the following methods to divide the rest of the property.
The Slice of Cake method is based on the mathematical precision with which a child can divide a piece of cake when the child knows that another child will get to choose which slice of cake to eat. To divide property in a divorce, one spouse makes what they consider to be a fair division of the disputed personal property, and the other spouse has first choice between the two piles.
To use the Slice of Cake method to divide the disputed personal property from an estate, select one person by lot to do the dividing. The remaining heirs also draw lots to decide the order for choosing their pile. I have experienced this method in my own family, dividing the estate of a childless aunt. There was a lot of toy-trading after the picking was over, but only one cousin felt cheated. She was an unpleasant person (no, she was really a vile-tempered, greedy witch) and no one wanted to trade with her.
Another approach to divide property is the Sports Draft method, which is for dividing a group of similar items of varying value, such as a collection of Navajo rugs or Medieval beer steins. The number of items that each person ends up with will vary, but the value of their items will be approximately equal.
Here’s how to divide property with this method: Have an appraiser evaluate the collection and note each item’s market value. Draw straws for first round pick order and each person selects one item. At the end of the first round, reveal the value of the picks. Then you continue to pick, but the order continually shifts as the accumulated value of any person’s items changes. For example, if Shane’s first pick had the lowest value, Shane continues to pick items until the value of his items is greater than someone else’s. Then that person picks an item or items until their picks are no longer lowest total value. If cousin Bettina picks an item that is extremely valuable, she will have to sit out a couple of rounds to let the others catch up with her.
How to Divide Property Early
Although prenuptial agreements and up-to-date wills can minimize the squabbles that occur when heirs have to divide property, my grandmother’s way of dealing with family heirlooms is hard to beat. As soon as each grandchild was old enough to have some individual taste, about 8 or 10 years old, she gave us our choice of one item from her house. Did she let me take my cut-glass Victorian bowl home right then? Of course not! She wrote my name on one of her visiting cards and taped it to the bowl. I could visit the bowl until I was out of high school, then she gave it to me for keeps. Of all the methods to divide property, I recommend this option above all others – it is sure to keep the sandbox bullies out of sight.