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How to Sell a House During a Divorce


Divorce is a challenging and emotional time for anyone, and the process often involves making significant decisions about personal and shared assets. Selling a home during a divorce can be a practical option for many couples, allowing them to liquidate their most significant joint asset and move forward separately. However, the process will require you to take into account several key things to ensure that both parties can transition as smoothly as possible. A financial advisor can help you take stock of your assets during a divorce and plan for your financial future after your marriage ends.

What Happens to a Couple’s Assets in a Divorce?

During a divorce, couples must face the challenging process of separating what was once shared, from the family home to the smallest piece of jewelry, each possibly carrying a weight of memories and emotions. The emotional attachments to these assets often cloud the practical necessity of their division, making the process even more daunting.

The laws that govern how assets should be divided in a divorce can vary significantly depending on the state. Therefore, you should understand the difference between community property states and equitable distribution states.

In community property states, assets acquired and debts incurred during the marriage are typically divided equally, as they are considered to be owned by both spouses. On the other hand, equitable distribution states strive for a fair division, which may not always mean equal. A judge in an equitable distribution state may take into account the length of the marriage, the contributions that a non-working spouse makes and the financial outlooks of both spouses, to determine what’s equitable.

Types of assets commonly divided in divorce include:

  • Marital homes
  • Investment portfolios
  • Business ownerships
  • Retirement accounts
  • Personal property, such as vehicles and jewelry
  • Accumulated debts

Steps for Selling a House During a Divorce

A divorcing couple meets with their attorneys.

Selling a house during a divorce will involve multiple steps. These can include reaching a mutual agreement to sell the home, preparing the home for sale, listing the property, accepting an offer, settling the mortgage and finally dividing any remaining profits. Here’s a general breakdown:

1. Agree to Sell

The initial and perhaps most important step in selling a house during a divorce is establishing a mutual agreement between both parties. This agreement can help ensure a smoother transition and reduce the chances of costly and protracted legal disputes. The decision to sell the marital home is frequently motivated by factors like an inability to divide the asset practically or the mutual desire for closure and the ability to move forward with their lives independently.

Open dialogue is essential to reach a consensus that respects the interests of both individuals. But, should a dispute arise regarding the sale, legal intervention may become a necessity. In this case, mediation or arbitration can serve as an effective pathway to reach an agreement and thus avoid additional conflict and a court proceeding.

2. Get the Home Ready to Sell

Preparing the home for the market is a multifaceted process that involves making repairs and enhancements, as well as presenting the property in its best light to prospective buyers. It’s important to declutter and depersonalize living spaces, and employ the services of a professional stager, if helpful. The selection of neutral color palettes and the execution of minor updates can also contribute positively to the home’s marketability.

3. Hire a Real Estate Agent and List the Property

When listing the property, you’ll likely want to choose an experienced real estate agent who can navigate through the complexity of a divorce with neutrality and professionalism. The agent’s role is to represent interests from both spouses equitably and develop a listing strategy that balances the urgency of the sale with the objective of securing a fair market price. The strategy should account for the local real estate market conditions and the financial goals of each individual.

4. Accept an Offer and Close the Sale

Evaluating offers in the context of a divorce requires you to consider of various factors, including the timing of the sale, the division of proceeds and potential contingencies that may impact the sale’s conclusion. You may want to maintain clear lines of communication and seek legal counsel to guarantee that the interests of both spouses are defended and reflected in the negotiations.

The closing process involves a series of legal and financial transactions that must be precisely coordinated. This typically includes a final property inspection, the execution of numerous legal documents, the distribution of closing costs, and the transfer of ownership title.

5. Settle the Mortgage

If there’s an outstanding mortgage on the property, it must be settled as part of the sales process. The proceeds from the sale are typically used to pay off the mortgage balance. It’s important to communicate with your lender early in the process to understand any penalties or processes associated with paying off the mortgage early. Clearing the mortgage ensures that both parties are released from their joint financial obligation, paving the way for the division of any remaining proceeds.

6. Divide Proceeds

The final step in the process is dividing the proceeds from the sale. This division should be based on the agreement made during the divorce proceedings, which may consider factors like each party’s contribution to the purchase and upkeep of the home. In community property states, however, proceeds are typically split equally.

Alternatives to Selling a House During Divorce

While selling the house is a common solution, there are alternatives that may better align with the unique circumstances and emotional landscape of those involved in a divorce. Engaging with legal and financial professionals can help you understand the full scope of each alternative path.

Buy Out Your Spouse

A buyout occurs when one spouse pays the other their share of the home’s equity, becoming the sole owner. This option is especially appealing if one party wishes to stay in the home, perhaps to maintain stability for children or to keep the home in the family. Financially, it requires that the buying spouse can afford the buyout, either through personal savings, loan qualification or through an agreement on the division of other assets. The key benefit here is continuity; however, it demands a clear and fair valuation of the property and an assessment of each party’s financial future post-buyout.

Rent Out the Home

For couples who are inclined to keep the marital asset and tap into potential rental income, turning the home into a rental property is a viable option. This option generates income, which can be particularly helpful if the divorce has strained finances. It also buys time to wait for a better real estate market or for personal circumstances to change.

The process begins with understanding the responsibilities and financial implications of becoming a landlord, which includes property maintenance and tenant management. Divorcing couples should consider their readiness to either manage the property themselves or delegate to a property management firm. Additionally, there are tax considerations and impacts on cash flow that need to be taken into account. This option is not just about the additional income but also involves assessing one’s capacity to handle the obligations that come with being a landlord.

Delayed Sale

Opting for a delayed sale can align with personal timelines and long-term plans, providing a grace period before parting with the marital home. This choice can be motivated by various factors, such as awaiting market improvement or reaching a significant milestone for children. This can minimize disruption for the children during a critical transition period. The implementation of a delayed sale involves drafting a legal agreement that outlines the specifics of the delay, division of expenses, and the predetermined timeline for the sale.

This agreement can help ensure that both parties are committed to the home’s upkeep and allows for financial planning in anticipation of the sale. While this strategy may offer benefits, it’s dependent on both parties’ willingness to cooperate, and it should be noted that delaying the sale does not guarantee a higher return in the future.

Can a Judge Order You to Sell During a Divorce?

A judge strikes her gavel during a divorce hearing.

Yes, under certain conditions, a judge does indeed possess the authority to mandate the sale of a house during a divorce. This decision is usually made within the broader process of asset division, aiming to ensure a fair distribution of marital property between the spouses.

The determination of whether a home must be sold typically hinges on several key factors. First and foremost is the categorization of the home as marital or separate property. Marital property includes assets acquired during the marriage, regardless of whose name is on the title, and is subject to division. Separate property, acquired before the marriage or through inheritance or gift, may be exempt, although this can become complicated if the value of separate property has been significantly commingled with marital assets.

Judges also consider the financial circumstances of both parties, including their ability to maintain the home independently. If neither spouse can afford the mortgage or upkeep on their own, the court may deem a sale necessary. Additionally, the presence of children and the desire to minimize disruption to their lives can influence a judge’s decision.

In cases where a sale is ordered, the judge will outline the terms, including the timeline and division of proceeds. This process can be complex, involving appraisals to determine fair market value and negotiations over who covers ongoing expenses until the sale is finalized.

Bottom Line

Selling a home during a divorce will require careful consideration of emotional, financial and legal factors. Whether in community property states where assets are split evenly, or in equitable distribution states where fairness can dictate a different outcome, the process demands transparency and cooperation between parties.

Tips for Navigating Divorce

  • Filing your taxes after a divorce will likely be a different experience from when you were married. There’s a lot to consider and be mindful of, including your new filing status, changes to your marginal tax rate, as well as a lower standard deduction as a single filer.
  • A financial advisor who holds the certified divorce financial analyst (CDFA) designation can be a valuable resource for you when confronting the financial realities of divorce. Finding a financial advisor doesn’t have to be hard. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with up to three vetted financial advisors who serve your area, and you can have a free introductory call with your advisor matches to decide which one you feel is right for you. If you’re ready to find an advisor who can help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.

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