In many—if not most—divorces, the family home is the couple's largest asset. It can also be a very emotional item. Very likely, you and your spouse decided in happier times that it was where you wanted to spend your lives together, and it may be where your children have lived most of their lives. This can make it difficult to let go and to assign a value to it.
Because the house is so valuable and so important, it can be the linchpin of negotiations for a property settlement. Deciding what you're going to do with the house often helps put other property issues into perspective, both financially and emotionally.
There are three common ways to deal with a family home at divorce:
If neither of you wants to—or can afford to—stay in the house, you can put it on the market and try to get the best possible price for it. Disadvantages include the expenses of sale and forcing the kids to move at a difficult time in their lives, but many people would prefer to have the money from sale than to keep an asset that reminds them of better times. See "Selling Your House at Divorce" for more.
A buyout is when one spouse releases his or her interest in the house in exchange for cash--or a promise of cash in the future. It's not unusual for one spouse to be more attached to the house than the other, or for the parent who will be primary caregiver for the kids to want to stay in the house with them. There are a lot of things to consider in a buyout.
Sometimes neither a sale nor a buyout makes sense, and spouses decide to keep the house and make arrangements to continue co-owning it for a predetermined period of time or indefinitely. The arrangements have to be very clear, because the spouses are basically in a business relationship as co-owners of property once the divorce is final. See "Co-Owning a House With Your Ex After Divorce" for more about how to make it work.
Adapted from Nolo's Essential Guide to Divorce, by Emily Doskow.