In a recent case, I saw a Judge direct his sheriff to handcuff a mother and send her to jail for failing to give the father the family photographs so he could make copies. Prior to that hearing, there was a Court Order requiring the mother to do so, and she refused to follow it. Mother thought Father would destroy or lose them, because she didn’t trust him. Father thought Mother was being vindictive and purposely preventing him from sharing in the family memories when their children were young. The Judge felt someone wasn’t following his Court Order – and there were serious consequences.

One of the most sensitive and costly issues to deal with in a divorce is the family photographs, videos and all the other personal property to be divided. Who gets the dining room? The kid’s beds? The pots and pans? The patio furniture? It can cost more to litigate who gets what then to replace the "stuff" – but that’s just not fair.

In the case of Bair v. Bair, decided in May 2007 in Lycoming County, the parties spent a considerable amount of time, which equals money, to litigate personal property. The issue was heard by a Master, then a Judge, then the husband was given a date to retrieve items designated as his. The husband went to the marital residence where he picked up most items, but discovered that some were missing. The husband then filed a petition, the lawyers had a conference with the Judge, and then there was a final hearing. At that hearing, both parties testified about all of the items the husband blamed the wife for taking or destroying. At the end of the day, the wife had to return the following:

  • Shop manuals and tool books
  • A 4-drawer steel file cabinet
  • A 30 ft. chain – or $20.00 if she could not find it
  • Missing drawers for a wooden cabinet
  • A log splitter – or $425.00 if she could not find it

By my estimation, the litigation fees to obtain these items cost ten times more than the value of them. A better way to deal with personal property division is to hire an arbitrator to make a binding decision. The parties make a list of all items and select the ones they want. The lists are submitted to an arbitrator and there may be a brief meeting to discuss items of disagreement. The arbitrator then makes a decision, that cannot be appealed, as to who gets what. The arbitrator can be a lawyer or a court-appointed master and the costs are significantly less than the litigation in the Bair case.

And, once the decision is final – hand over all of the stuff! It is not worth spending one minute in jail for failing to make copies of the family photographs or losing your spouse’s box of tools.

Editor’s Note:  In one case the other lawyer and I actually went to one party’s home to retrieve and safeguard an oriental rug – Imagine the cost of our two hourly rates just because these former spouses wouldn’t (or couldn’t) trust each other.