5 Steps to Negotiate Equitable Distribution

Money. We love it. We struggle with it. We fight about it. Money touches some of the deepest recesses of our being, the tender spots where insecurities dwell. We fear we won’t have enough, even when we have always had enough to survive in the past. We want to be respected and valued for what we provide and to demonstrate good stewardship. We know money is a useful tool, but it can also be the root of all evil and equated with power. It is the gateway drug to pleasure, guilt, pride and fear.  

With all this going on, it’s no wonder that it rivals sex for the number one source of relationship disputes.  When two people come together romantically, money will invariably become part of their dance.  And when those people have different financial experiences and training, chaos will ensue. We must reconstruct our natural inclination for self preservation and the preservation of our children and expand it to include another. In an era where there are no standard norms of behavior around money, we will have to blaze our own path and jointly answer challenging questions such as:

  • How much do we share and who do we share with?

  • Is contribution determined by time, money, effort or creativity?

  • How should shared money be spent?  

  • How much do we value things, experiences, education, security?

  • How much should be saved, given or enjoyed for pleasure?

  • How do we value non-paid work, such as care of children or housework?

  • How much risk is tolerable?


So much of this comes down to one central question: what is fair?  We muddle through this tender territory, paycheck to paycheck, moment to moment. We reach delicate agreements and we define and redefine value and worth.

Then the relationship ends and we revert, almost immediately, to our initial inclination to protect ourselves and our children according to our own beliefs and definitions. We have to divide our assets and separate our debt just as our greatest fears of not having enough reach an apex. If we talk to friends or family, they likely will encourage us to take care of ourselves first and discourage risk or generosity.  

what is fair in a divorce

In this maelstrom, many people invest in legal representation aimed to get them the most money in the long term, but sapping their existing resources. Even if you’ve been through a divorce before, you’re probably no expert at family law so you’re adrift in new territory without a map.  

I’m not an attorney and can’t pretend to offer legal advice, but I can share the steps that lead to successfully mediated financial agreements.  

  1. Know what you have. Compile an inventory of all of your assets and liabilities so that you are clear about how much you have and how much you owe. Take a financial “snapshot” of your finances at the date of your separation including amounts in all of your accounts and long term debt. Note which assets and debts were acquired prior to marriage. Having a clear picture of your total financial profile will not only speed up the negotiation process but will help you feel more confident about what lies ahead.

  2. Define what it means to win. You’re not going to be able to keep everything, no matter how little he made or how much she spent or how you’ve been wronged. Narrowing in on what matters most to you will allow you to let go of material possessions that matter less.  If keeping the family home is key for you, are you willing to walk away with little or no liquid assets and more debt?

  3. Consider the intangibles. What price would you put on having a harmonious working relationship with your co-parent or ensuring financial stability for your children in both homes? Accept the fact that you will never get a perfect 50/50 split and come to terms with what you can afford to let go of in order to have a peaceable relationship with your former spouse in the future. This is most obvious for couples with minor children, but it also impacts people who share grown children, a social network or a community.

  4. Decide how much you’re willing to spend to get what you want. Many people tackle divorce like a soccer game: the objective is to score more than your opponent.  Unfortunately, this can be a costly pursuit both psychologically and financially. It’s not uncommon for people to outspend their “winnings” in legal fees. When I hear the words “It’s the principle of the matter,” I know that client is in dangerous territory.

  5. Learn your local laws.  Find out how equitable distribution is defined in your state. You can research this online or consult with an attorney. If you decide to work with an attorney, this knowledge allows you to create a ballpark estimate of what you can expect to come away with and what you’re willing to settle for. But, be careful not to believe that you will get the full amount an attorney suggests is possible.  


Most importantly, remember that divorce - like marriage - involves compromise. Whatever you believe you’re entitled to, you can be sure that your former spouse has a different perspective. You can fight about it, or you can figure out how to find a solution that you both can live with and prepare to move on.