The “divorce master” is real, and you might need one

Divorce, Relationships

A divorce typically involves judges, attorneys, and/or mediators. So what, exactly, is a divorce master? It sounds like something only Brad and Angelina could afford, but in reality, masters are increasingly common in divorce proceedings.

“Divorce masters are attorneys appointed by the court to hear divorce hearings,” says Jeffrey Kash, a Pennsylvania-based attorney who has served as a divorce master. “They are the finders of fact in the divorce.”

Kash explains that the master hears testimony and takes evidence at a hearing, then issues a report that contains recommendations on whether or not the parties should get divorced, how their property is divided, how much will be paid in alimony and counsel fees, and other details.

“In Pennsylvania, the parties then have 20 days to file exceptions to the master’s recommendations,” says Kash. “If no exceptions are filed, the final divorce decree will be issued and the master’s recommendations will be adopted as the court’s order in the divorce. If there are exceptions, a judge will rule on them.”

The judge’s stand-in

And divorce masters are not found just in Pennsylvania. “Many states have court masters,” says divorce financial analyst and family mediator Rosemary Frank of Rosemary Frank Financial, LLC. “The use of masters in divorce cases is common because so many court appearances in these cases are rudimentary and do not really require the full time of the court. Masters are usually attorneys by profession, as are most judges.”

Frank explains that, by acting as a stand-in or substitute for the courtroom judge, the master saves the court valuable time. “Courts are overwhelmed with mundane cases, like divorce—many of which are routine and do not demand the attention of a judge,” she explains. “So the master handles certain issues and can issue court orders.”

In dealings with her divorce attorney, Elizabeth (not her real name) was informed that standing in front of a divorce master was far more desirable than appearing before a judge. “My attorney said that our local judges were impatient with divorce hearings when they could be focusing on more pressing matters,” says Elizabeth. “She requested that we be allowed to present our case to the divorce master because he’d be far more attentive to the specific details supporting my complaint.”

And what the master says, goes. Divorcing parties must abide by the master’s judgement or find themselves in contempt of court. “The master keeps a record of findings for all appearances and submits it to the judge for final rulings,” says Frank.

Why face a master instead of a judge?

There are a number of different reasons why a divorcing couple would find themselves in front of a master versus a judge:

  • The court clerk, according to policies and procedures established by the judge, will direct divorcing parties and their attorneys to appear before a master instead of the judge.
  • An attorney for one of the parties might request to appear before the master because he/she is familiar with the working of that particular court.
  • An attorney might prefer a master so as not to wait longer for the judge to become available.
  • Judges may, by their own initiative or by attorney request, appoint an expert who has specialized knowledge—financial or technical, for example—to serve as master for a particular case to hear those issues and report findings in a way that is understandable.

Sometimes, even the most reasonable of clients and the most competent of attorneys simply cannot come to a global settlement agreement, explains attorney Patrick Cooper of Sadek and Cooper Law Offices. “These times are when the divorce master is needed to provide that very important role in the legal system.”

According to Cooper, the divorce master may also play the role of determining whether grounds for divorce have been established. The master’s experience in dealing with hundreds or thousands of other divorce cases enables him/her to pinpoint the issues and make a determination as to which side will prevail.

“The divorce master often encourages settlement between the parties by acting as sort of a final mediator, but the divorce master does not replace the role of an attorney and does not provide legal advice to the parties,” says Cooper. “Hiring an attorney is always recommended when there are issues of property division or other matters that may need to be resolved by a divorce master.”