In Divorce, Family Law, Mediation

The Judicial Branch offers people going through divorce several different types of assistance with resolving their divorce. One of them is referred to as a Special Masters proceeding and it involves the voluntary participation of attorneys. It usually takes place after other efforts fail to produce an agreement and the parties seem to be headed for trial. It is only available to litigants who are both represented by counsel. (If one or both parties are self-representing, the court can offer alternative options). And it only addresses financial disputes.

The process depends on the commitment of time and effort from very generous attorneys who perform this work as both a courtesy to the court and to enhance their professional skills. They generally have many years of experience working in the judicial district they serve and are respected by their colleagues. They essentially agree to serve as “Special Masters” for a period of time knowing that they will be assigned dates a few times per year. The assignment consists of working with another Special Master (there are always two – one male, one female) hearing summaries of cases from the parties’ attorneys, discussing them with each other, and making recommendations for settlement to the parties. The proceeding used to take place in a conference room at the courthouse, but lately have been increasingly conducted remotely, via Zoom.

Both parties and their attorneys must be present. Prior to the Special Masters, the attorneys each prepare a document which provides the Special Masters with some background information on the parties, the marriage and the outstanding issue in the divorce. It also contains each parties’ claims (what divorce terms they want). The attorneys also provide the Special Masters with current Financial Affidavits from both parties. This is not a trial. Most of the time, no other documents are necessary. The parties do not testify, although the Special Master may ask a question if they need clarification on something.

At the Special Masters, the attorneys each take turns orally presenting a short summary of the issues in dispute and their “pitch” for why they think what their client is asking for is reasonable. The Special Masters may ask a few questions and then talk amongst themselves for a while. When they return, they jointly present their recommendations for settlement and usually share why they think the way they do. They will encourage the parties to settle their case as opposed to taking the case to trial. They will explain that trials are expensive, both financially and emotionally, and risky – that often people don’t get what they think they will get from a judge. The whole process takes between 60-90 minutes. The recommendations are not filed with the court and the judge that hears the case – if it goes to trial – will never know what was recommended. Nor will they know who agreed or disagreed. It is all considered settlement negotiations and, thus, confidential.

Although the Special Masters may ask the attorneys if they think the case will settle, parties do not have to decide anything right then and there. They will have time to discuss the recommendations with their attorneys. The parties can either agree, disagree or resume negotiations based on the feedback from the Special Masters. If the case is not already scheduled for trial, dates will be discussed at that
time.

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