QUESTION: I LIVE IN LANCASTER AND MY SPOUSE AND I ARE IN THE PROCESS OF DIVORCING ONE ANOTHER AND WE CANNOT AGREE TO THE FINANCIAL ISSUES ASSOCIATED WITH OUR DIVORCE. WHAT IS THE NEXT STEP IN LANCASTER COUNTY?
ANSWER: If you and your spouse have been separated for a year or more, we can begin the Divorce Master process. In Pennsylvania, in almost every county, instead of going before a Judge, there is a “Divorce Master” system. The Divorce Master process cannot be bypassed or avoided.
A Divorce Master is a local attorney who has been appointed by the Court to preside over divorce cases and make a recommendation to the Court regarding how assets should be divided, awarding alimony, and the payment of counsel fees. In Lancaster County, at this time, we have four (4) Divorce Masters. They are:
Penn Glazier, Esquire
Daneen Miller-Smith, Esquire
JoAnne Murphy, Esquire
Catharine I. Roland, Esquire
We are quite fortunate because all four (4) of our Masters are very good. Most people say that they feel the Master has been fair, even if they didn’t get everything they wanted.
The first step in the Divorce Master process is to prepare and file two (2) documents with the Court. They are called an Inventory, which is a list of assets acquired during the marriage and the approximate values of the assets, and an Income and Expense Statement, which sets forth your financial circumstances. We call “marital assets” those assets which were acquired during the marriage with a few exceptions, such as assets kept in your own name which are inherited or gifted to you by someone other than your spouse or you had before the marriage.
After we have filed an Income and Expense Statement and Inventory on your behalf, the opposing party has twenty (20) days to file the same documents. After both documents have been filed, we file a Motion with the Court to appoint a Master.
After the Master has been appointed, he or she will schedule a Telephone Conference with both parties’/spouses’ attorneys. Usually, the parties/spouses do not participate. If more information or appraisals are needed, the Master may schedule another Telephone Conference. After the information which is needed on both sides has been gathered, the Master will schedule a Pre-Trial Conference. The Pre-Trial Conference involves both parties, their attorneys, and the Master. In preparation for the Pre-Trial Conference, each party’s attorney must file a Pre-Trial Memorandum. This is filed before the actual Conference with the Master. At the Pre-Trial Conference, the Master will usually schedule a date for a Hearing. A Hearing is very much like a Trial, except there is no jury. There is a Court Reporter and sworn testimony is taken, and Exhibits are given to the Master and made a part of the Court file or record.
The most common time for cases to settle which have gone as far as the Master System, is between the date of the Pre-Trial Conference and 12:00 p.m. on the day on which the Hearing is scheduled. In anticipation of the Hearing, we prepare questions, exhibits, and review what is going to happen with our clients. The Court Reporter will prepare a Transcript, which will usually take about thirty (30) days.
After the Transcript is prepared, each spouses’ attorney usually has thirty (30) days to prepare a Brief. After the Briefs have been filed and submitted to the Master, the Master will review the Briefs, the Transcript, and the Exhibits, and write a Report.
After the Master’s Report is filed with the Court, each spouse has an additional twenty (20) days to file an Appeal. If an Appeal is filed, the other spouse has an additional twenty (20) days to file their own Appeal.
Very few cases are appealed; however, if the Master’s Recommendation is appealed, the case will then be turned over to two or three Judges. Additional Briefs are then filed with the Judges who have been assigned to the case. There may be an Oral Argument which a spouse may attend. The Judge will then write an Opinion and the divorce is then made final.
Each spouse has the right to appeal the Judges’ Decision to the Superior Court; however, this occurs very infrequently.
This is a long, complicated, and expensive process. Hence, we try our best to reach a settlement; however, sometimes that is not possible. As is the case with all litigation, you, your spouse, and both of your attorneys, must do a lot of work, gathering information, undertaking research, and preparing for a Master’s Hearing. Unfortunately, the process is time consuming and expensive.
A Master’s Hearing can cost as much as $10,000.00. Hence, we exercise our very best efforts to resolve your case in the way which is most beneficial and economical for you. Please remember that this article is providing you with general information to help you understand what to expect with regard to the Master’s process. Please remember that every case is different.