Ask Unclutterer: Splitting the stuff in a divorce

Reader Courtney submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

I am getting divorced, and I’ll be moving from a roomy house to a one bedroom apartment this summer. This scenario raises two questions:

1) What do I do with all the “us” stuff that may have some sentimental value (we’re parting amicably), but takes up space? Prime example: wedding pictures.

2) What’s the best way to sell a lot of furniture/artwork/etc that won’t involve a large time investment? I know craigslist, etc, are valuable for getting rid of something large, but I need to downsize a lot and quickly, and the idea of negotiating 20 bajillion individual sales makes me cringe.

There’s a third somewhat related question:

3) Can you think of any other opportunities for uncluttering hidden in this situation?

Thanks for any advice you might have for me!

Before I get too deep into the post, I just wanted to say I’m sorry to read your marriage is ending. Even when divorces are amicable, they’re still emotionally draining and wrought with paperwork. I’m also sorry there aren’t more resources that discuss handling the physical stuff in a divorce. I hope I can help!

To answer your first question, I talked to my friend and asked her what she did with her wedding photographs. She was married before digital pictures were standard, and I really like the way she handled splitting their photographs:

With all my wedding/marriage items, I worked in phases. At first holding myself together emotionally was enough of a job! When we split things in half, we did the same with the pictures. He got the ones with his family and vice versa. And you know how you have gobs and gobs of group shots? We went halfsies with those, too.

I put the wedding album in a box in my closet when I moved. About a year later, I pulled the pictures out of the album, tossed the album, and kept the pictures that still made me smile. Which, was a decently sized stack. And I put them back in the box in my closet and that’s still where they are. Occasionally, I like to look at that very young, very pretty 23-year old me and appreciate her.

If your wedding pictures are digital, I would simply make sure that you each have a copy of the files. In time, you can decide if you want to keep or delete them.

Regarding your second question, I would get into touch with an Estate Sales professional. The American Society of Estate Liquidators has a Find an Associate feature that can help you locate someone in your area. You may not end up using the person you contact, but he or she should be able to help you find a single-sale solution. You can also do a Google search for “Estate Liquidators” in your area and check out the companies’ reputations through Angie’s List — just make sure the one you want to work with is insured and bonded. A good ol’ fashion yard sale might also work for you. Schedule a Goodwill or 1-800-Got-Junk truck to come at the end of the sale to haul off the things people didn’t buy.

Finally, to answer your third question, I think now is a great time to do some soul searching and really decide what it is you want for yourself in the next stage of your life. Only bring into your new home those things that you need and that inspire you. Cast off clothing that doesn’t pass the red velvet rope test, let your ex take all of those kitchen gadgets you never use, and donate your wedding dress to Brides Against Breast Cancer or another worthy cause.

Thank you, Courtney, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. Please check the comments for more advice from our readers who have gone through similar situations and emerged on the other side. My best wishes for you!

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26 Comments for “Ask Unclutterer: Splitting the stuff in a divorce”

  1. posted by Sooz on

    Re: wedding photos (or any photos, really) — why not scan the originals? Can be printed if desired, but in the meantime, both parties could have ALL the images they each wanted.

    Added bonus to scanning: if anything happens to the originals, there is still a copy available digitally.

  2. posted by Dawn F on

    I don’t know if Courtney and her husband have children together or not, but if they do I would highly suggest keeping some momentos and photos for the children. I am so pleased that my mother kept a small collection of wedding photos, newspaper announcements, etc. for me – leaving the choice up to me when I was older to keep them or toss them.

    She also kept her china dinnerware and a few special gift items such as a vase and a serving dish. The items are special to me now in my adulthood and I appreciate the fact that she considered me when uncluttering and splitting up property.

    Keeping your engagement ring and/or wedding ring for a daughter might be special as well – you could replace the current stone(s) with a birthstone perhaps.

    Best wishes for a happy future, Courtney. I hope you are able to keep, toss and/or split up your marital property in a way that leaves you comfortable and at ease.

  3. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Sooz — I’ll be honest, the idea of scanning digital photographs (either on your own or paying to have a company do it) seems like an awful task to take on during this time! I didn’t recommend it because I can’t imagine sitting in front of a scanner for hours on end reliving a wedding minute-by-minute when going through a divorce. Or, worse yet, PAYING someone to do it. Maybe it’s just me …

  4. posted by Amanda Smith on

    The estate sales sounds like a smart plan, but my first thought was a more classic yardsale.

  5. posted by Adam on

    I went through this almost 2 years ago. My ex-wife was really surprised at how little I wanted from our shared possessions. It was a great opportunity to unclutter my life and my new, uncluttered apartment really helped me get into the mental space needed to get over the emotional challenges. Having less to take care of gave me more time to develop a new social life and helped my career take off. My ex now maintains our huge, old house which is filled with stuff and occasionally remarks how there are days she would trade me for my apartment.

  6. posted by Young Mogul on

    Great question, great advice! I just started the uncluttering process (a home that wouldn’t be considered cluttered by today’s standard) and you would be surprised how free I feel after only less than a month of this journey! This is a great opportunity for change, growth and renewal.

  7. posted by Kathryn Fenner on

    Hmmm, what does it say to me that although I have a happy, stable marriage and a fairly minimally decorated house–and furniture I like a lot, the idea of calling the estate liquidators and just starting over afresh was soooooo appealing?

  8. posted by Mike on

    When I was divorced in 2001, the ex wanted everything. To spite me, I imagine. I told her she could have it all as long as she took the debt too. For whatever reason, she agreed. She moved out and left me with nothing but my wardrobe and family photos, and my total debt on the planet was reduced to just a vehicle note.

    Greatest single decluttering I ever pulled off. I wish it would have lasted.

  9. posted by becktopia on

    Couple thoughts from a child of divorced parents…

    my grandmother kept my mom’s wedding dress & wedding pictures. I was an adult before i ever saw their wedding photos. that makes me sad, but i’m happy to have them now. that is part of *my* history and important for divorcing parents to remember that.

    one thing cool my mom did do is leave all the family photo albums intact and on display with all the *new* ones, even after she remarried. This kept a continuity for us kids and made sure that my dad wasn’t erased from the family history.

    She made sure to give my dad some photos & some other house stuff, toys, books, etc so that we had plenty of things that were familiar when we stayed with him.

  10. posted by Rue on

    Regarding the stuff that you want to sell, I’m in agreement with a yard sale. Out of whatever doesn’t sell – take the things you might be able to get some money for (like furniture) and list them on Craigslist (maybe split the negotiations between you and your soon to be ex). Take everything else to Goodwill or charity.

    If your wedding photos are printed, either agree to split them down the middle or send them off to be scanned so that both of you have copies. At this time in your life, might be easier to just send them off to be scanned. If you don’t trust a company with them, ask a good friend to do it for you.

  11. posted by Rue on

    Oh, and as for other opportunities to unclutter – the whole thing is a giant uncluttering opportunity waiting to happen. You and your almost-ex are going to need to go through the things in the house to decide who gets what, right? So, if neither one of you really wants something, then it’s easy to toss it. Throw it in the yard sale with everything else that you are going to sell!

  12. posted by Jack on

    Another vote against scanning the pictures, if they were done by a professional, most places (eg, Wal-Mart, Walgreens, etc) won’t let you print them because of copyright infringement.

  13. posted by Kara on

    When my friend got divorced fairly young, she said something that struck me as profound — that she didn’t want to pretend her marriage didn’t happen. Getting rid of wedding pictures or other items of sentimental value strikes me as attempting to do that.

    On the other hand, I’m tempted to get rid of most of my wedding pictures, and I’m still happily married. We have a handful framed, and the rest are sitting on a shelf for posterity, I guess.

    I like the idea of scanning, but I agree that now is not the time to pour the money or effort into doing it. I say tuck sentimental items away in a box under your bed or somewhere and come back to them after some time, like Erin’s friend did.

  14. posted by Amy B on

    When my husband got divorced from his first wife (about 5 years ago) he really just took his clothes and most treasured personal (pre-psycho ex) items.

    (He wanted the ex to return his late mother’s jewelry, to put away for their daughter – and any future girls he might have – but psycho ex SOLD all of it!)

    Honestly, I am glad that he didn’t take a bunch of junk or furniture, etc. when he moved out. I enjoy not having to deal with anything that has what I call “bad ex-wife karma” attached to it!!!

    As for the wedding pictures, his father has a copy tucked away (they are HILARIOUS! No “but they looked so happy” pictures here!) and the (also remarried) ex STILL HAS THEM ON DISPLAY!!

    In my husband’s case, a divorce was the perfect time to “purge” his life of the worthless crap you accumulate over a few years (and rickety college furniture) and start fresh!

  15. posted by Mac on


    I came to the comments to make the same observation and found I didn’t need to. Thanks. 🙂

  16. posted by nicole 86 on

    my husband repudiated me 2 yeats ago, when we finally got divorced, I asked to keep a lot of stuff because I thought i could use it. Now, i would like to let all that stuff go but here in France we don’t have anything like garage sales. When I move, i will have to get rid of many pieces of furniture. One more burden !

  17. posted by Lose That Girl on

    Just like the horrible task of dealing with sentimental clutter after a loved one dies, separating and sorting through items with a divorce on the go is just so painful. I feel for people in this situation.

  18. posted by auntie on

    i broke off an engagement a little over a year ago, and although there weren’t any large items – like furniture – to deal with, there were plenty of cards and pictures from when we were just dating, as well as all the fun wedding-planning stuff i’d accumulated and worked so hard on. i knew i needed to get all that stuff out of sight but i also knew i wasn’t ready to just toss it, so i packed everything away in a couple of archival boxes and decided that at some point, i’d be ready to either dig through them or throw them away. i haven’t hit that point yet, but i’m confident i’ll get there at some point.

    i agree with @Kara that you shouldn’t act as though that part of your life never happened. unless things are ending on a horrible note, there just might be a moment in the future when you wish you had that old picture or some little item that represents what was a very meaningful time in your life. it doesn’t mean you wish things had turned out differently, but i think there’s great value in honoring those things that helped make you who you are today.

    i’m really impressed by Courtney’s desire to make this time in her life as productive as possible, given the circumstances. it will really feel like starting over if she can work through some of these things now, instead of moving boxes of unwanted stuff and having to deal with them later.

  19. posted by a bit embarrassed on

    What if you are the one left behind in the house with all the ‘stuff’… My daughter still lives with me, and I feel like I keep stumbling over things that my ex-wife bought for me or our daughter.
    I find it very difficult to get rid of those items despite not wanting them.
    Maybe I just need to attack the house as if it were mine, instead of still mentally ‘sharing it’ with my ex. It’s surprisingly difficult to do.
    I’m glad you answered their question on your site.
    Thank you.

  20. posted by Amy on

    My ex didn’t want anything from our life together. He couldn’t get out of there fast enough. I offered several times during the separation to let him have anything he wanted from the house.
    Since he didn’t take anything, I got rid of things as I saw fit. He always liked kitchen gadgets, like blenders and juicers, so when a girlfriend of mine had a garage sale with the proceeds going to benefit breast cancer research, I donated all his junk, including his golf clubs. I figured it was better than setting it all on fire, a la “Waiting to Exhale”.
    Sometime later, he did ask for the golf clubs back, but alas, it was too late. I still had the wedding photo album, and offered him that instead.
    I haven’t heard from him since. Things always have a way of working out for the best.

  21. posted by Mary on

    Two suggestions —

    My uncle died last year, and I was responsible for getting rid of all his belongings. In a stroke of good luck (for us, anyway) a family friend was about to divorce, and needed furnishings for his new place fairly quickly. He and I went through the apt., noting the things he wanted. I priced the items, came to a total, gave him a generous discount on top of that, and the deal was done. I threw in, for free, all the everyday “housekeeping” stuff — dish soap, paper plates, spices, foil, plastic containers, etc. – most of the stuff in the kitchen drawers and cabinets. He was thrilled, and best of all, he came and got the stuff and hauled it off! In one fell swoop! It was definitely a win/win. He saved a boatload of money and got set up instantly, and we waved bye-bye to a headache. So finding a situation like this would be ideal.

    Second suggestion derives from the first — I’m thinking maybe someone just out of school, setting up an apartment for the first time, would be thrilled to find this same arrangement. Just a thought.

  22. posted by John Soares on

    Excellent suggestions here.

    I know one couple that let a local company sell the good furniture and antiques on consignment in their store, and then donated or sold the rest of the stuff to another company that supplies thrift stores.

  23. posted by Miss Margaret Picky on

    You might decide to treat the old house as a department store where you can go shopping for the things you need for your new apartment. Choose only things you would buy and that you need. In your mind you are not deciding what to get rid of, you are deciding what you need for your new, empty apartment.

    Then you might allow friends and family to take things, especially if they are starting out on their own. No one in my extended family ever had to go out and buy furniture for their first place–unless they wanted to!

    Then you might get one of the people who does estate sales to come in and sell everything. There are also people who will sell stuff on eBay for you but estate sale people will be willing to handle a wider range of stuff. Since you have so much stuff and don’t mention money being a problem but say you don’t want to handle all those sales, that may be the way to go.

    Some of the estate sale people will then take the leftovers to their permanent location to sell or you can donate it all for the tax deduction which will be easy to figure because the stuff has already been priced. Besides thrift shops there may be organizations that work with immigrants seeking asylum or battered women or prisoners or victims of disasters that need furnishings.

    You have a great opportunity to make a fresh start and choose only possessions that you really want. Make the most of it and good luck!

  24. posted by Elaine on

    One of the few non-depressing memories of my divorce 15 years ago was dividing up the “stuff.” By that time, my ex and I were traveling such clearly divergent paths, it was easy to do. He wanted the Cuisinart, but I wanted the microwave (that appliance lasted another 14 years!). It was the same with art — his taste had gravitated toward a black dot on a 12×16 white canvas, while mine ran to quirky cartoon cels. Music was still a little thorny, though: I remember him moaning “You’re taking my Peter Gabriel CD!”

    We had a massive garage sale that spanned several weekends. Despite our best efforts, there was still a lot of chaos. Someone walked off with his toolbox during the sale and he always suspected me of selling it to someone and pocketing the proceeds. Over a dozen huge trash bags full of clothes (including my wedding dress, with a stain) were stuffed into the local charity collection boxes at nearby strip malls. And a few photo albums, and probably my college yearbook, never made it out of the garage; I often wondered whether the new residents kept them or tossed them. Never bothered going back to check; would have felt strange.

  25. posted by Sonja Aoun on

    I read this blog often and I thought this was an excellent post. However, as a divorce lawyer, I wanted to add to this discussion how important it is that anyone going through the “stuff” WAIT until there is some kind of agreement in place before dividing up the personal property. Separation agreements or divorce decrees usually state that items of personal property have been divided by mutual agreement. However, a spouse who tosses or sells unwanted items without first offering them to the other spouse may end up with even more unwanted items: paying for the tossed or sold items, or the attorneys fees spent to fight about them!

  26. posted by Weekly Links | The Big "D" on

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