As a prior Divorce Master, I witnessed a lot of confusion from clients about the Divorce Master process. During one of my more contentious cases, I overheard a litigant talking to his attorney during a break, and he asked: “When will I get a hearing with a real Judge?” Clearly he was disgruntled about how the case was going, but it’s a fair question. And the answer here in Lancaster County is that you won’t– your Divorce case will be heard by a Divorce Master, not a Judge.
In most counties in Pennsylvania (including here in Lancaster), divorce cases are heard and decided by Masters instead of Judges. Divorce Masters are court appointed officials, and they have jurisdiction to decide issues of property distribution and alimony. In Lancaster County, Divorce Masters serve as the finders of fact for the case. In practical terms, that means that the proceedings before the Divorce Master will be the only opportunity you will have to present your full case. So, be prepared and take it seriously.
Pursuant to the local rules in Lancaster County, your case before the Master will proceed in stages. Once you and your lawyer have decided that the case needs to move to litigation, your lawyer will file a Motion and a Divorce Master will be appointed. From there, a telephone conference will be scheduled. If the case is ready, you will proceed to a Pre-trial conference and finally to a Hearing before the Master. In future blog posts, I will detail the particulars of each of these stages.
But for the purposes of this post, remember that this is not a dress rehearsal, and that the only factual record of your case will be made at the Divorce Master level. Make sure that you get all of the relevant information to your lawyer ahead of time. Work with your lawyer to understand what issues may come up and tell them about any evidence you may have. As a Master, I often heard testimony where a client responded to a question by stating that they had more information about a particular issue or asset at home. Be aware that information that is not available to present to the Master at the time of the proceeding does not count. You will not get a second chance to present any new testimony or exhibits after the hearing before the Master. While you can take an appeal (called Exceptions) if you do not agree with the outcome, you will still be stuck with the evidence that you presented. The Court on appeal will not accept new information. The only basis for an appeal is if an error of law was made by the Master. So, it is crucial to treat the Divorce Master as the “real Judge”, and to understand the importance of the process.
For a great overview of what to expect generally in court proceedings, check out Laura McGarry’s series What to Expect When You’re Expected in Court. Also, look for a future post which will walk you through all of the specifics about what to expect in the Divorce Master process, entitled “Anatomy of a divorce case in Lancaster County”