Dividing Personal Property in Divorce

“What? She gets the cabin AND the big screen TV?!”

 We’ve all heard the stories about nightmarish payouts during celebrity divorces (and Tiger thought that 9 iron to the temple hurt) as well as bitter fights over something as small as silverware. Personal property disputes during a divorce are common. Personal property generally refers to items such as furniture, tools, electronics and other items of value in your home.  Often, people attach much personal sentiment on these types of items of property.   Therefore, it becomes difficult to come to an agreement as to how to divide this property. As you can imagine, the longer the marriage, the more the memories, the tougher this task becomes. So how does it work?  How do you put value on property when the owner’s interpretation is clouded with personal attachment?

 Sometimes divorcing couples can come to an agreement regarding the division of personal property on their own or with some assistance from their respective legal counsel. Oftentimes, however, it becomes necessary to bring in a non-partisan expert who can accurately assess and appraise personal property at the forefront of the dispute. This can be an expensive endeavor (in Wisconsin, most personal property appraisals cost between $500 and $1,500) which yields disappointing results.  The expert who comes in to appraise your personal belongings does not care that the vase on the coffee table is great-grandma’s, nor does the expert care that you spent $8,000 on your home theater system five years ago.  The expert gives a subjective opinion as to the “rummage sale” value to your belongings. Therefore, great-grandma’s vase may only be valued at $20 and your home theatre system may not exceed $250.  Almost always there are values attached to items in a personal property appraisal that you will not agree with. 

 Also, the appraiser will not value every single item in your home.  They do not go through cupboards, drawers or boxes.  They usually will not climb up in your attic or climb over items stuffed into a garage.  They will only appraise visible items of value.  So, to some extent, it is up to you to catch missed items or point out items that you specifically want appraised ahead of time.

 Once the appraiser assigns values to these items, the party who has property of higher value must pay the other one-half of the difference.  However, the court or the other party cannot force you to accept items that you don’t want.  If there are items that neither party wants, the court will simply order that they be sold and the proceeds be divided.  Of course, there are then often issues with who will sell the items, at what price, etc.

 As a result of the above, when it comes to the division of personal property, it is best if the parties can agree how to divide everything.  Only you and your spouse are aware of the sentimental value that is attached to your personal belongings.   Only you and your spouse can reach an agreement that takes everything into consideration and is fair to both of you without going through the hassle, time and expense of an appraisal.

 To speak with an attorney understands all aspects of how personal property is valued or divided, contact us at 414-258-1644 to schedule a free initial office consultation or visit our website for more information.

 

What If My Ex-Spouse Doesn’t Pay Debts or Files Bankruptcy?

What if your ex-spouse doesn’t pay the debts he or she was ordered to pay in a divorce?  Or, what happens if he or she files bankruptcy?  Do you have to pay those debts?

Chances are you had some debt when you were divorce such as credit cards, mortgage, etc.  And, some of these debts were likely to have been joint debts.  Your divorce judgment should have allocated these debts and ordered one spouse or the other to pay them.  However, the thing you need to keep in mind is that your divorce judgment is only binding on the two of you – not your creditors.  Your creditors were not a party in your divorce.  Therefore, they don’t have to follow the court’s orders in your divorce judgment.

If your ex-spouse fails to pay debts he or she were ordered to pay, the creditor can still come after you for repayment.  Or, if your spouse files bankruptcy, you are still responsible for these debts as long as your name is still on them.  If you live in a marital property state, such as Wisconsin, you could even be responsible if your name is not on the debt although that doesn’t often happen.  You do have some options, however, to force your spouse to pay these debts.

While you should seek the advice of an attorney to make sure you are as protected as you can be, it is important that your divorce judgment should at least have language included which sets forth your spouse’s obligation to pay or refinance any debt which has your name on it and to not incur additional debt in your name.  It should state that you are “held harmless” from any of these debts.  And, there should be language that states that if you are held liable for any of his or her debts, that you have the right to come back to divorce court to seek reimbursement.  There are also additional provisions which can be included to even further protect you.  Many of the standard forms for final Agreements that are available to people who do not have lawyers do not have this extra language contained in them.

Even in the event of a bankruptcy, this additional language can protect you.  A bankruptcy action discharges the debt and responsibility between your spouse and the creditor.  However, your spouse still has a responsibility to you to pay the debts he or she was ordered to pay in your divorce.  Therefore, the divorce court retains jurisdiction to enforce that obligation if your judgment of divorce grants that authority to the court.

The court has several options available to it providing that the proper language exists in the judgment.  Primarily, the court can order repayment through garnishment or can even order maintenance or alimony to compensate you for any debt you may end up getting stuck with if your ex- fails to pay.  Sometimes the court will even order a lien or the sale of an asset to pay the debt.

If you are concerned about the payment of debts, you should definitely consult with an attorney to make sure the proper language is contained in your divorce judgment to protect you in the event your spouse fails to pay or files bankruptcy.  Even if you feel you cannot afford an attorney, the long term cost to you could be much greater if you get stuck paying debts that your spouse is ordered to pay.

To discuss your concerns about debt in your divorce in Wisconsin, contact our office at 414-258-1644 to scheduled your free initial office consultation or visit our website for more information.

Hiding Assets in a Divorce in Wisconsin

While no one likes to think they could be defrauded by their spouse, even under the worst circumstances, asset concealment during divorce is relatively common. Some spouses hide assets for purely financial reasons, perhaps fearing that they will not have enough to get by on after the divorce; others engage in asset concealment for other reasons, such as feelings of entitlement or a desire to seek revenge.

Divorcing spouses hide assets from one another in a wide variety of ways, ranging from highly sophisticated to deceptively simple. The following examples are just a few of the methods that a spouse may use to cheat a soon-to-be-ex out of a fair property settlement:

  • Temporarily transferring stock or other investment accounts into someone else’s name with the understanding that they will be transferred back after the divorce
  • Purchasing high-value items that are likely to be overlooked or undervalued, such as antiques or art
  • Deferring salary, commission, bonuses or other income to keep it off the books until after the divorce has concluded
  • Stowing cash or other assets in a safe deposit box, either in the home or elsewhere
  • Setting up a custodial account in the name of a child or other third party
  • Overpaying on taxes or other debts with the intent of receiving a refund after the divorce

To avoid losing out to a spouse’s asset-hiding scheme, it is important to stay involved in your finances at all stages of both marriage and divorce. Also watch for common warning signs that your spouse may be hiding assets, for instance if he or she:

  • Is secretive about financial affairs and does not share passwords and bank account information with you
  • Begins taking out unusual amounts of debt
  • Has financial statements and bills sent to a work address or private P.O. box
  • Opens multiple bank accounts for reasons that seem flimsy
  • Complains of sudden financial hardship, such as business failure, particularly if this occurs without a corresponding decrease in spending

 Hiding assets during a divorce to affect the outcome of the property division process is unethical and illegal in Wisconsin.  If a spouse hides or fails to disclose an asset worth more than $500, the court can impose severe consequences, including awarding that asset to the other spouse in its entirety.

If you are going through a divorce or are thinking about filing for divorce and suspect that your spouse may be hiding money or other assets from you, contact us at 414-258-1644 to schedule a free initial office consultation or visit our website for more information.

Appraisal of Assets in a Divorce in Wisconsin

There are often disagreements in a divorce about the value of certain assets.  Most commonly, this involves real estate and personal property.  However, the value of a pension or a business also may be at issue.  Although the below information may also be relevant in other states, this article specifically applies to divorces in Wisconsin.

If the parties do not agree on a value, the only option is to have the asset appraised.  If there is a dispute, the court must have a reliable source for a value.  The court will not consider the opinions of either party because there is no real basis for their opinion.  The only way to have a reliable value is to have an expert conduct an appraisal.  Usually, the parties agree on an appraiser or the court will appoint one.  The parties then usually share in the cost.  It is always preferable to have a mutually agreed upon appraiser or a court appointed one so a situation does not arise where there are “dueling appraisers”.  This saves everyone time and money.

For real estate, there are many reputable appraisers around and each judge always has a few that he/she prefers.  As long as they are a licensed appraiser, the court will usually accept them as an expert.  Once the appraised value is determine by a neutral expert, it is very difficult to contest that value except if there is an obvious error.  If you want to object to the value, you would have to hire your own expert to testify.  This is very rare and most real estate appraisers are at least in the ballpark in terms of value.

Appraising personal property is tricky.  It is very difficult to accurately determine the fair market value of things like TV’s, furniture, etc.  Of course, the value of those items is what someone is willing to pay for them such as in a rummage sale or on Craig’s List.  Even if you only recently purchased an item, it loses resale value almost immediately.  It is also virtually impossible to itemize every single thing in a home.  There are always items that are missed or overlooked.  Appraisers do not go pawing through boxes or drawers.  There are also very few individuals who conduct these appraisals because they are time consuming and difficult.   Attorneys usually encourage their clients to resolve this issue.  However, if you absolutely can’t, an appraisal is necessary.  Most people are not happy with the results but it is the best we can do under the circumstances.

Specialized items of personal property are often appraised separately.  These items included guns, jewelry, antiques, artwork and unusual equipment or artifacts.  An appraiser with specific experience with these items is necessary.  Depending on the item and where you reside, it is often difficult to find someone and sometimes it is required to look outside of your area or even your state.  You would then need to pay for that person to come to you or ship/transport the items to that person at their location.  This becomes very time consuming and costly.

If you have a pension, this may also need to be valued.  Pensions are defined benefit plans which provide a monthly benefit to you when you retire.  Pensions often vary greatly and have different rules, policies and procedures.  An actuary or accountant can calculate the present value of that pension.  However, the calculation is based on your life expectancy and an estimated length of time that you will collect that pension.  You may live much less or much longer than your life expectancy pursuant to current actuarial tables.  Therefore, a pension evaluation is basically an educated guess. However, sometimes it is necessary if a person wants to buy out the other spouse’s share of the pension or offset it against another asset, such as a marital residence.

Lastly, a business can be appraised or valued as well.  There are many different ways to do so and an expert is required to conduct this appraisal or value as well.  For more information about a business valuation, see our blog post on this topic:  How Is a Business Valued in a Wisconsin Divorce Case.

To discuss your assets in your divorce and how they may be valued or appraised, please contact us at 414-258-1644 to schedule a free initial office consultation or visit our website for more information on property division.

What If I Need to Hire an Expert in My Wisconsin Divorce Case?

In a divorce case, there can often be a need to hire experts to assist with specific issues.  Those experts might help with valuing assets (real estate, a business, personal property, pension, etc.) or provide testimony regarding one party’s earning capacity or ability to parent.

In Wisconsin, the Court may appoint an expert to accomplish this or a party may hire an independent expert.  If the Court appoints an expert, the Court will determine the responsibility for the expert’s fees which is generally an equal division.  The fees for an expert hired independently by one party will be that party’s sole responsibility.

An experienced family law attorney will assist you with finding the right expert for your needs.  There are often lists of experts regularly appointed by the Court in a given county.  These lists can be made available to family law attorneys and are very helpful in us finding the best match for your expert testimony needs.

To schedule a free initial office consultation to discuss hiring an expert your divorce, please contact us at 414-258-1644 or visit us at Nelson, Krueger & Millenbach, LLC  for further information.

How Is a Business Valued in a Wisconsin Divorce Case?

When a divorce action involves ownership of a business, the Court must determine what will happen with the business.   The first step is to determine the value of that business.   An experienced family law attorney will help you hire the appropriate expert with the necessary qualifications to value the business.   In a Wisconsin divorce case, the parties can agree on an expert o r the Court can name one expert to value the business.  A party may also hire an independent expert to value the business.  If the Court names the expert or if the parties agree to one, the parties then typically share the cost of the valuation.

The expert will provide a list of necessary documents, such as tax returns and profit/loss statements, which are needed in order to determine the business’ value.   The owner or operator of the business will be required to turn over all of those documents.  If there are assets of the business, like equipment, inventory, or vehicles, a separate expert or appraisal may be needed to determine the value of those assets.

Once the expert has determined a value of a business, the parties can use that information when dividing all of the assets in a divorce.  If a party does not agree with the value, they are free to hire their own expert to conduct an evaluation.  However, the Court ordered expert is usually given more deference at trial in terms of his or her opinion.

To schedule a free initial office consultation to discuss the valuation of a business in your divorce, please contact us at 414-258-1644 or visit us at Nelson, Krueger & Millenbach, LLC for further information.

-Alison H.S. Davis

Can I Keep My Inheritance in a Divorce in Wisconsin?

This is a question we often hear in a divorce action.  Inherited and gifted monies are exempt from division in a divorce in Wisconsin.  If you have kept these funds separate, in your own name, there is a high probability that you will be able to keep any gifts or inheritances in a divorce.  Sometimes, the court can divide these funds in unusual circumstances for “equitable reasons” but that is a fairly rare occurrence.

However, disputes arise when inherited or gifted funds have been “co-mingled” into a marital asset.  For example, if the funds were deposited into a joint account or were used to purchase a marital home.  In these situations, the nature of the funds have been transmuted into a marital asset.  Often, the individual receiving the inheritance or gift wants those funds back at the time of the divorce.  The current state of the law on this topic is that there must be “donative intent” on the part of the spouse who received the inheritance.  In other words, is there sufficient evidence that the spouse intended to give his or her inheritance to the marriage or to the other spouse?

This inquiry is very fact specific.  The court would look at the details of the marriage and the actions of both parties to make this determination.  In reality, however, family court is a court of equity and strives to arrive at a result that is fair and equitable to both parties.  Depending on when the inheritance was received and where the funds were spent or deposited, the court will sometimes give credit for co-mingled inherited or gifted funds.

For further details, please see our website at Nelson, Krueger & Millenbach, LLC or contact us for a free initial office consultation.

Teri M Nelson