You can divorce and wait to divide property, but you shouldn’t

DEAR MR. MYERS: My husband and I bought a home shortly after we got married in 2009, but now we have decided to get divorced. We have worked out all the details, except for one: What will we do with the house? I have already moved into an apartment, but he is still living in the home, and wants to keep it. The property is worth about $80,000 more than we paid. Is there any way that I can complete the divorce and deal with the property issues later?

ANSWER: Yes. There’s a way to finalize the divorce first and cope with the house-related issues later, but it’s not necessarily the best way to proceed.

Most states have a process called “bifurcation,” which enables a divorce to be completed even if the couple hasn’t yet reached agreement on how their assets should be split.

Be aware, though, that bifurcation sometimes causes more problems than it solves. For starters, it might encourage one or both of the divorcing parties to drag out their asset-settlement negotiations – particularly if one spouse doesn’t want the divorce as badly as the other one does.

I know one former couple who bifurcated their divorce years ago but still haven’t reached agreement on what to do with their old home, which essentially has forced them to stay involved in each other’s lives even though they can’t stand to be in the same room together. That’s not good for them, much less for their two kids.

Bifurcation can raise other thorny issues: Who will live in the house while the negotiations drag on? Who will pay the mortgage, property taxes and other bills? How will the income-tax deductions be split, and what might happen if one of the two people gets remarried or even dies before a settlement is reached?

Clearly, each of you needs to talk about the pros and cons of bifurcation with your respective lawyers.

There’s a good chance that the attorneys will suggest that the two of you simply put the house up for sale immediately and then split the eventual sales proceeds, either on a 50-50 basis or by using a different formula. Doing so would allow you to wrap up the divorce’s loose ends quickly and permit each of you to start your separate lives.

REAL ESTATE TRIVIA: A small but growing number of agents are carving a niche in the real estate sales market by specializing in homes that are offered by divorcing couples, according to the National Association of Realtors. Many avoid using the term “divorce” in their marketing efforts, fearing it may encourage a potential buyer to lowball an offer.

DEAR MR. MYERS: What is real estate “betterment”?

ANSWER: It’s a change to a property that increases its value, rather than simply maintaining it.

For example, adding a new bedroom or updating a kitchen would be considered betterment because it would raise your home’s market value. Conversely, changing a washer in a leaky sink or replacing a broken sprinkler wouldn’t be considered betterment, because it would simply maintain the current value of your house.

DEAR MR. MYERS: The lease application that my buddy and I completed for our first apartment on Sept. 1 was approved last week. Buried in the (really long) contract that the landlord wants us to sign is that we would be “joint-and-several liable” for the rent. What does this mean? We have telephoned and emailed the landlord three times for an explanation, but he hasn’t returned our messages.

ANSWER: A “joint-and-several” liability clause is fairly common in most residential leases today, whether the contract involves an apartment or the rental of a single-family home.

A joint-and-several clause basically makes each tenant financially responsible for the entire monthly rent – plus any damages – if a co-tenant doesn’t meet his or her share of the bargain.

To illustrate, let’s say that you and I decide to rent a two-bedroom apartment together. The rent is $1,500 per month, so you agree to pay the landlord $750 each month and I promise to pay the other $750.

I run short of cash a few months later and cannot make my share of the monthly rental payment. If the lease contract that we initially signed had a

joint-and-several clause in it, the landlord could legally force you to pay the entire $1,500 yourself.

If you don’t pay the full amount, the landlord could evict us both and then sue you for all of any lost rental income.

David W. Myers’ column is distributed by Cowles Syndicate Inc.