How to help sellers (and keep your sanity) through a messy divorce

How to help sellers (and keep your sanity) through a messy divorce

Home sales resulting from divorce can be fraught with peril. Here’s how to navigate through this rocky relationship terrain

By John Giffen

As published in Inman News on February 9, 2020

Over the years, I worked with numerous sellers who were ending their marriages. I never sought these particular listings; they just landed in my lap from friends and neighbors who referred a divorcing husband or wife to me. At the heart of a couple’s divorce, along with establishing parental rights, is the disposition of their most significant asset — their house.

Transactions involving divorcing couples can take longer than “traditional” real estate deals due to the legal complexities of what is required in a marriage dissolution suit and the time it takes for the parties to decide on various matters concerning their real property. You must be patient if you take on a divorcing party. You will also need to show compassion toward them as this is probably one of the most, if not the most, difficult times in their lives.

Divorce transactions take additional skills and know-how, as no two deals are alike. Each phase of the listing period and the time between contract and close can be time-consuming and exhausting, sometimes due to unexpected drama or one or both of the parties’ attorneys delaying the closing.

Several of my divorce clients were amicable toward each other while others were completely separated from one another, non-communicative, and uncooperative. If there is tension between the couple, you may only work with one of the sellers during a divorce. I have found the party who contacts me is the one who wants to get the divorce quickly behind them. Be careful, though, because if there is little to no communication, you may find it difficult to get both to cooperate in signing contract paperwork and providing information to the title attorney so they can close the transaction.

The following are six tips I would encourage every real estate professional to use when working with clients who are, or soon will be, in the process of a divorce:

1. Communicate with the divorce attorneys. I always try to introduce myself to both the husband’s and wife’s attorneys, so they are aware I have been asked to list the home by one or both parties. If one party does not want me to list it, then I don’t list it. I need both sellers’ signatures on the listing agreement unless a quitclaim deed has been duly executed and recorded with the county’s register of deeds office. There is no need to go through the time, money, and effort to get a house on the market if you know one of the parties will put up a fight to not list the home.

Many times, the court will order a house to be sold to keep the divorce case moving forward. The entire process goes much smoother if the court orders the parties to list the home as soon as possible. In many of the divorce cases I handled, the court named me as the agent who would list the property. The parties usually would cooperate when the judge told them to do so.

2. Recognize divorces are extremely emotional. I have yet to be involved in a real estate transaction involving a divorce where the emotions of the husband and wife were not high. You need to be prepared for a tremendous amount of animosity each person will have toward the other. It can reach a point where they hate each other. And, I mean hate each other. Their anger can cross boundaries to where restraining orders need to be issued to keep the couple physically apart, so both remain safe.

Many years ago, I handled a transaction involving a very wealthy couple who owned a large home in an affluent neighborhood in Nashville. One of my wife’s friends referred the wife to me. I called her to schedule an appointment to visit with her and tour their home. On the day of my meeting, I received a text from her telling me she just filed a restraining order against her husband. He was harassing her on an ongoing basis to the point the police needed to be summoned to the property on numerous occasions. He was eventually arrested and jailed for violating the restraining order. His attorney represented him during the listing period and in the sale of the home.

Remember, couples are divorcing because they cannot get along and attempting to get them to work with an agent to sell their home can be tricky. It is made much more difficult if one of the parties does not want the divorce. If one person has significant anger toward the other one, they may try to do anything they can to cause a delay in listing the home. The house becomes a pawn in the divorce and is used as leverage by one party to get something from the other.

3. Try to keep the process professional and unemotional. When I meet with one or both divorcing parties needing to sell their home, I always express my desire to keep emotion out of the listing and later in the transaction. Emotion clouds one’s reasoning ability and their common sense. If they are genuinely committed to dissolving their marriage, any real estate they own must be sold. The parties have to be as objective as possible as I walk them through the listing period and on to the offer and contract stage.

Meeting with the parties takes proper planning and coordination. If only one of the parties can meet with me during a listing presentation, I will ask if I can contact the other party to schedule a time to give them the same listing presentation. The best scenario is to bring both parties together at the same time so all three of us can agree on how I will manage and market the listing. I try to keep my listing presentations and any other subsequent meetings relatively short (thirty to forty-five minutes) because there is a strong possibility they will begin arguing, and one or both of them will walk away. If one party refuses to meet with me for any reason, I will contact their attorney to schedule a meeting to review what I need from that party to keep everything moving forward.

4. Setting the list price. In a divorce listing, it is critical everyone agrees on a list price. As with my other seller clients, I always have plenty of data showing what homes, similar to the subject property, have sold for during the past six months. With a good comparable market analysis, you can get them both to agree on a price.

5. Good communication will ensure a successful listing and sales transaction. During the listing and contract-to-close periods, it is critical you communicate with both parties on a regular basis. Communicate through the attorneys when one party doesn’t want to speak with you. Keep everyone in the loop so that they can comply with all requests for paperwork, access to the house for inspections, etc. Also, keep all communication consistent when talking with the husband and wife on separate occasions. What one should know, the other should also know.

6. You must remain neutral. Finally, and perhaps, most importantly, when working with divorcing sellers, remain impartial at all times. One of the parties may try to vent to you about the other one doing or not doing something, but you must never take sides. You should never state how you feel or offer any advice outside of your real estate expertise. If you do cross that line, it will more than likely come back to bite you, and you may lose the entire transaction because of your impartiality. Just stay on the sidelines and remain neutral.

Nobody likes to hear about the marriage of two people coming to an end.  Unfortunately, people do drift apart for one reason or another.  And, when this happens, one or both of the divorcing parties will need a competent and patient real estate professional guide them through the sale of their property. Divorce transactions are challenging, but with the right tools and know-how an agent can navigate through the process and get the couple to the closing table.

John Giffen is Director of Broker Operations for Benchmark Realty, LLC in Franklin, Tennessee.  He is the author of “Do You Have a Minute? An Award-Winning Real Estate Managing Broker Reveals Keys for Industry Success.”

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