A divorce master is an attorney who works for the county, or contracts with the county, to make recommendations in divorce actions. Generally, divorce masters have experience practicing family law and are familiar with the Divorce Code. Some divorce masters are full-time employees and some are part-time. Some counties have one divorce master who handles all of the divorce actions that land on his or her desk. Some counties have several full-time or part-time divorce masters.
The divorce master is not a judge and has no legal authority to issue court orders, but he or she makes recommendations to a judge. The judge then issues a court order based on that recommendation. Depending on the county, the divorce master may handle virtually all of the issues that arise in a divorce action, including conflicts over discovery, special relief petitions, distribution of property, alimony, counsel fees, etc. The divorce master acts in place of a judge to hear these issues, using the procedure a judge would use for pretrial conferences and hearings.
Divorce masters want parties to settle their conflicts by agreement if possible. Before having a hearing, they will schedule conference(s) to focus on possible areas of agreement. If you reach an agreement at a settlement conference or at any point prior to (or sometimes in the middle of) the hearing with the divorce master, the divorce and related financial issues can be finalized without going any further. If not, the divorce master will hear all of the testimony, review all of the exhibits, consider briefs submitted by the attorneys if appropriate, and make a recommendation regarding the divorce. If nobody appeals that recommendation, a judge signs it and finalizes it.
The divorce master process can take months or even years (yes, it happens) from start to finish. That can be frustrating for the parties, but it is necessary. The vast majority of divorce actions are resolved by agreement without a divorce master ever being assigned or at some point before reaching the “final” divorce hearing before the divorce master. Divorce masters can have a huge impact on encouraging individuals to resolve their divorce and related financial issues by agreement, and it is time and money well-spent.
If you live or work in the central Pennsylvania area, including Hershey, Harrisburg, Carlisle and surrounding communities and would like to discuss divorce masters or any other family law or estate planning or administration issue, please contact me.