Anatomy of a Divorce Case in Lancaster County
In a prior blog post, I explained that divorce cases here in Lancaster county are heard by Divorce Masters instead of Judges. Because the proceedings before the Master will be the only chance you have to present your case, it is important to understand the process.
Your lawyer will appoint a Divorce Master with a Motion with the Court. Once appointed, the Master will hear the claims that you have raised which may include claims for the distribution of property and/or alimony. When a Master is appointed, a telephone conference is scheduled with the lawyers. The Master will deal with procedural issues and determine if the case is ready to move forward or whether there are any impediments to moving ahead such as disputes about the date of separation or missing discovery.
Discovery is the legal term for the gathering and sharing of necessary information to move a case forward. Your lawyer will ask you for information about your assets and income and may need to seek valuations of those assets by outside parties (such as real estate and pension appraisers). If you want a good outcome, you should prioritize getting your lawyer all of the information that he or she is asking for. It may seem burdensome, but since this is your only opportunity to present evidence, it is worthwhile to provide as much information as possible on the assets and incomes involved. This may require inquiries to the bank, to your accountant or even to your human resources department, but all of your efforts will matter very much to your case.
Once the case is procedurally ready and all of the information about the assets and incomes has been exchanged through discovery, the Master will schedule a Pre-trial conference. This is held at the courthouse with both parties and counsel present. For this conference, your lawyer will submit a Pre-trial Statement that outlines your entire case as well as your requested outcome. This document will include all of the information that has been compiled about the assets and incomes involved. At the Pre-trial conference, the Master will review the information and will hold a settlement conference. Often, the Master will give you an idea of a probable outcome.
If the case does not resolve, the Master will schedule a divorce hearing. This hearing is held before the Master, and will proceed with as many days as may be needed for the testimony and exhibits to be presented, although they will not necessarily be all in a row. The hearing is formal and is conducted with a court reporter present. You and your spouse will both testify about your case generally and also about the assets and income. A full divorce hearing may also include the testimony of expert witnesses such as real estate appraisers or pension experts. Following the hearing, a transcript of the proceedings is filed, usually within 30 days. The Master will set a schedule for counsel to submit briefs or legal memoranda following that. This usually is within 30 to 60 days of the filing of the transcript and is the opportunity for your lawyer to refer to the facts in the record and make legal arguments about what should happen in your case.
After all of this is submitted, the Divorce Master prepares a full Master’s Report which is filed with the Court and mailed to the parties and counsel. The Master’s Report is an often lengthy document which goes through all of the facts that were presented at the hearing and applies the law. The Report will determine what assets are marital property and how they are to be distributed between the parties. If alimony has been raised, the Report will detail whether alimony is payable and for how long. If counsel fees are raised, the Master will also determine if one party owes another for fees. Finally, the Master will allocate all of the court costs in the case.
If you disagree with the outcome, you can file an appeal called Exceptions. However, even if you file Exceptions to the Master’s Report, you will not be permitted to submit any new information. The only issue on appeal is whether the Master made an error in the determination of the applicable facts or the application of the law.
I realize that this all sounds a bit intimidating, but the most important thing to keep in mind is that it is a process. As with any process, it can take time and be frustrating. However, understanding how the case will progress and working with your lawyer who can guide you along the way is an important step towards making your divorce proceed smoothly and with a desirable result.